Last month Amanda and I took a “normal person vacation” to Scotland. In my luggage I had room for just one pair of running shoes, and therefore needed a well-rounded model that would be comfortable for a week straight and that would perform well wherever and whenever I could get out for a run, whether that meant pavement, hiking trails, or sheep trails, or dry, wet, or muddy.
I considered the original Salomon Sense Pro (my long-term review), which for several years has been my favorite all-around running shoe, but instead went with the new Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra, which fit similarly and have an equally wide range, albeit more trail-centered. Plus, I’d been sent them for review by Salomon, and Scotland would be a convenient testing opportunity.
Review: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra
The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra is ideal for mid-length and long outings with varied trail surfaces. They will best fit feet of average and below-average width and volume. Expect precision handling, reliable outsole grip, and a happy-medium balance between cushioning and ground feel.
My most recent run in the Sense Ultra is indicative of this shoe’s range. It was a 34-mile 5.5-hour long run in Boulder with nearly 7,000 vertical feet of climbing. The route included a bit of everything:
- Paved roads and bike trails to reach and return from the trails,
- Dry rolling dirt singletrack,
- Steep, off-angle, rock-strewn trail with wet surfaces after an early-morning thunderstorm,
- Fine gravel bike path and jeep road, and,
- Rocky, washed-out, and loose peak trails that maintain 25-30 percent grades (e.g. 1,900 vertical feet in 0.8 miles).
Due to its versatility and long-term comfort, later this month I plan to wear the Sense Ultra in the Bighorn 100 in Wyoming. I’ve logged 120 miles in them, and have put them aside until race day.
- 9.7 oz (M’s 9), 11.0 oz (M’s 11.5)
- Breathable mesh upper with reinforcing exoskeleton
- Bump- and abrasion-resistant toe guard
- Premium Wet Traction Contragrip
- Stack height: 26mm/18mm
- Drop: 8mm
- $180 MSRP
The S-Lab Sense Ultra fits true to size. I’m a consistent 11.5 in other Salomon shoes, plus models from Altra, Hoka, La Sportiva, Merrell, and Salewa.
How does the S-Lab Sense Ultra compare to other shoes from Salomon?
S-Lab Sense Ultra vs S-Lab Sense 6 and 6 SG
The naming sequence suggests that the S-Lab Sense Ultra is most akin to the S-Lab Sense 6 and Sense 6 SG. But I don’t feel this is the case. These models are considerably:
- Lighter (7.8 and 7.9 oz vs. 9.7 oz, or 20 and 18 percent lighter), and
- Thinner underfoot (heel/foot of 18/14 mm and 20/16 vs. 26/18, a reduction of 27 and 18 percent).
The agile Sense 6 and 6 SG are minimalist racers. But unless you’re built like Kilian, you’ll probably find the added cushioning of the Sense Ultra to be more welcoming on longer outings. The Salewa Lite Train (my review) are Sense 6-like, and personally I max out in them after 2 hours.
S-Lab Sense Ultra vs. Sense Pro
I think a better comparison to the S-Lab Sense Ultra is the original Sense Pro, which has been a longtime favorite of mine. The Sense Pro specs at 9.2 oz and 23/17 mm heel/forefoot, and is similarly versatile — you might recall that I chose it for the Colorado Marathon and for trail races like the San Juan Solstice 50 and Run Rabbit Run 100.
The S-Lab Sense Ultra has a grippier and more aggressive outsole, which alone makes the Sense Ultra more trail-worthy than the Sense Pro. While the Sense Ultra can be used on roads, but I wouldn’t do a road race or road workout in them. In exchange, however, the Sense Ultra is more masterful on challenging trails.
S-Lab Sense Ultra vs. Sense Pro 2
In respect to its trail-worthiness, the Sense Ultra is more like the second-generation Sense Pro 2, which has a more aggressive outsole than the original Pro. But the Sense Ultra is less stiff, making it more comfortable on relaxed trails. The Sense Ultra also fits me better, more like the original Pro.
Salomon has muted its colors across its entire line. Gone are the highlighted accent colors. The Sense Ultra is a simple red and black. Amanda said they were reminiscent of Air Jordans.
The S-Lab Sense Ultra is form-fitting, and will feel familiar if you’ve worn other premium Salomon running shoes. The Endofit yoke cradles the mid-foot. The toebox is sized for small- or average-sized feet, but it’s optimized for precision handling, not toe splay or roominess. And the Quick Laces apply even pressure throughout the system.
In short, the glove-like fit is exactly what I want in a trail shoe.
I assumed that the S-Lab Sense Ultra would have 4 or 6 mm of drop, on par with the Sense Ultra 6/6 SG and Sense Pro models. In fact, it has 8. I was surprised by this, since the heel/toe transition is fairly smooth and natural-feeling. I’d prefer less, but it’s not the deal-breaker that I thought it would be.
When pushed laterally, the Sense Ultra does not allow for sliding inside the shoe, and its outsole provides reliable traction.
The 26/18 stack height is about the minimum I can handle for long training runs and ultras. It’s certainly not as plush as an ordinary pair of Hokas or Altras, but the tradeoff with those models is reduced sensitivity. The Sense Ultra is not mutually exclusive with these more cushioned models: for hard days in the mountains, I grab the Sense Ultra; for easier days on flatter terrain, I grab the foot pillows.
I’ve been very impressed by the grippiness of the outsole, which is made of Premium Wet Traction Contragrip. Even on wet, angled, muddy, and ball bearing-covered rocks, I seem to get great purchase. Frankly, I’m still discovering the limits of this rubber — it seems that other shoes have trained me to run too conservatively.
The outsole is moderately lugged, striking a balance between grip, rolling resistance, and weight. It wouldn’t be my first pick for a muddy obstacle course or for a road race, but it performs well on most surfaces in between.
After 120 miles on varied surfaces, the outsole shows some signs of wear, about as much as I would expect.
The upper is classic Salomon: breathable mesh overlaid with a more durable exoskeleton. If it works, why change it.
The rubber outsole wraps nicely around the toebox, providing noteworthy resistance to impact and abrasion.
The tongue is thicker and more elasticized than other models. I am generally wary of elastic, which is heavy and which retains water, but I have not yet discovered first-hand a downside to this design.
Ouch, $180. The Sense Ultra is a great shoe, but at this price it’s probably a “special occasions” treat and not a daily trainer.
Questions about the S-Lab Sense Ultra, or have an experience with them that you’d like to share? Leave a comment.
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