The Ferrari of natural trail running shoes.
The past couple of years have been exciting if you are a trail runner interested in natural trail running shoes. Not to be confused with minimalist, or “barefoot” running shoes, a natural running shoe still offers a low heel-to-toe offset (which promotes a more natural mid to forefoot-first landing), while providing adequate underfoot protection for those longer or more technical trail runs. Natural running shoes should also offer some flex, as the shape of the foot is dynamic during that landing to push off transition. The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra not only falls into that natural trail running shoe category, it lays down its own standards. Everything about the Ultra screams heart-pounding performance, from the light and low profile (7.5 ounces for Men’s size 9; 4mm heel to toe drop), to the slipper-like feel and insane amount of shoe flex. Salomon designed this shoe with long-distance trail races and training runs in mind.
The my initial reaction when slipping on the Sense Ultra for the first time was that of complete awe! The shoe immediately felt like a featureless extension of my foot, which was a completely new sensation for me. I’ve read of other reviewers describing these shoes as “ninja shoes,” and I totally agree with that description. The shoe sports a slightly narrow fit in the forefoot, which strays away from the large toebox-style minimalist shoes we’ve been seeing a lot of these days. If you find that you need more volume up front for your feet, you might not enjoy the fit of the Ultras. The length felt just fine to me, though I would say the fit is maybe slightly longer than normal- still, I did not find the need to size down (I wear a men’s size 8).
The upper is completely seamless, with Salomon’s Sensifit overlays providing for a secure fit through the midfoot. The shoe feels like a slipper thanks to Salomon’s Endofit technology-which I would describe as an inner shoe liner. The Endofit liner makes the shoe a little bit difficult to slip on, but once your foot is in there you have a very secure and comfortable fit. The toes are well protected by a rubber toe cap that would not be out of place on a durable pair of hiking boots. Open mesh is also inter weaved throughout the upper, which offers plenty of breathability. The overall construction of this shoe feels well made and extremely durable, which is something I find very refreshing... I am usually quick to destroy the uppers on light-weight trail running shoes (it is not uncommon to see my toes poking out of my shoes to say “hello”), but I can already tell that the upper on the Sense Ultra will hold up well. Salomon has also included its quick-lace system, which is not a new feature, but I've always been a huge fan of it as you never have to worry about shoe laces while out on a run.
The Ultra strikes a terrific balance between firmness and cushion. Runners who are new to lighter natural trail running shoes will find that there’s just enough cushion to help get them through those longer training runs and races. Heel strikers looking to transition to a mid-to-forefoot-first stride will also find that the heel cushion provides for plenty of forgiveness. The shoe is still a fairly firm ride, providing for increased stability and a fluid, snappy turnover. Salomon’s OS Tendon technology (as noted by the two white bands running lengthwise underfoot of the outsole) further enhances that experience by flexing the shoe during the heel-to-toe transition. I am used to wearing clunkier trail running shoes, and switching to the light-weight and fluid Sense Ultras has left my stride feeling mind-boggling effortless at times.
The Ultra rides incredibly well on all surfaces, including pavement, though I found the ProFeel Film (Salomon’s rock plate technology) was noticeable and provided for a somewhat stiff feel when running on roads. Where the Ultra really excels is on steep and technical terrain. The ProFeel Film (which runs from the forefoot to the midfoot of the shoe) provided for adequate underfoot protection from sharp rocks but still manages to compliment the low-to the ground ride of the shoe; the Ultra excels at providing plenty of feedback when running on uneven terrain. The shoe’s outsole design- referred to as Contragrip- features triangular lugs which offer some of the best traction I have ever experienced from a running shoe. The lug pattern is offset, giving the shoe uniform traction on varying terrain. One thing I’ve noticed with the triangular lugs is that they are prone to tearing off when moving over pavement or rock- I have put in only 100 miles on my Ultras as I write this and a couple of lugs have partially ripped off. Still, the traction is relentless and composed of very durable rubber and I would feel confident wearing these shoes on any terrain.
The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra is the most exciting trail running shoe that I have worn. Ever. Salomon is raising the bar with the Sense Ultra, and I highly recommend these shoes if you’re seeking a truly great performance-based natural trail running shoe. Though the Sense Ultra will set you back $180 USD, the performance and quality of these shoes make them worth every penny.