Salomon S Lab Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground Review – a great addition to the Sense line
I recently received a pair of the third generation S Lab Sense 3 Ultra in the new Soft Ground configuration. Displayed this past summer at various outdoor retailing shows across the globe, these shoes have been much anticipated and long desired by those looking for an aggressive, low drop, and super lightweight trail shoe.
I have provided a “box to bin” set of reviews of the Salomon S Lab Sense Ultra trail running shoe in these posts:
What I found was that the Ultra model of the S Lab Sense was significantly improved over the original Sense. This came in the form of a few refinements that did not affect the incredible trail feel of the original:
- more cushioning (higher durometer mid-sole)
- more and deeper lugs
- lugs across the entire outsole
- improved polymer overlays and construction
I ran nearly exclusively in the Sense Ultra for the entire 2013 running season chalking up a little over 2000 miles (3300 km) and 300,000 feet (91,000 m) of vertical. It is a shoe that I can recommend without reservation as it performs at the highest level in nearly all conditions that a trail runner might face. That is, all conditions with the exception of mud. Enter the S Lab Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground- a Sense Ultra with an improved and more aggressive outsole as well as a few additional refinements to address past issues.
I will be posting a review of the Sense 3 Ultra separately in the next week or so.
The fundamental design concept of the S Lab Sense trail shoe line is to provide a versatile, low drop, super lightweight shoe for training and racing. For the Salomon design team this was no small order. However, starting with a blank sheet of paper combined with input from Killian Jornet and other experienced, high performance trail runners the design team came to market with the original S Lab Sense and set a standard for light weight, trail feel, and traction. Subsequent models have included refinements and significant improvements but the Sense line has lacked a model that addresses conditions that include significant and deep mud or similar low shear terrain (e.g. sand, etc.). The S Lab line has filled this need with the Fellcross and Fellcross 2 for low drop users and the XT 5 and 6 Soft Ground for higher drop users. Although the Fellcross exhibits outstanding performance in muddy conditions, it is not particularly versatile beyond the softer terrain. In fact, the Fellcross can be downright dangerous on sharp rocks, as I now well know after suffering a significant bruise to the bottom of my right foot in early this past fall after interacting with such a sharp rock with the Fellcross. With widely spaced lugs and without a rock plate, the Fellcross is truly suited for the Fells and not much else on a regular basis. Prior to 2013 I rotated between the Sense and the Fellcross in training and eventually eliminated the Fellcross from the rotation because the Sense provided so much more protection on the more rocky terrain that makes up about 50% of the running I do. I would have to be quite cognizant of exactly where I was putting my foot when wearing the Fellcross whereas the Sense allows for a much more carefree experience. The Sense Ultra improved this even further and has since become my training and racing shoe of choice. But should muddy conditions arise or should a race involve any significant amount of mud, I would bring out the Fellcross because it has such a high level of performance in these conditions compared to the Sense Ultra. Although relatively good, the Sense Ultra just does not have the same high level of traction in mud nor does it shed mud as well as the Fellcross. Right from the first introduction of the original Sense many have been asking about Salomon bringing to market a version with a more aggressive outsole. In fact prototypes have been seen on Killian for at least two years at certain races (e.g. Zegama), so it was expected that a Sense Soft Ground was imminent. Well here it is!
What is different from the Sense Ultra?
The shoe is a bit heavier than the other Sense models- my US 7.5/UK 7/ EUR 40 2/3 weighs in at 219 gms (7.7 oz) but is still a very, very light shoe. The major differences are in two areas- the upper and the outsole.
One of the major issues with S Lab Sense Ultra was the lack of durability of the upper. The mesh material used in that generation would develop holes at the outer edges near the interface with the polymer overlays. This is documented in the reviews linked above. Unfortunately these holes limited the life of the shoe because typically, in my experience, there was still reasonable tread left but the holes allow small bits of gravel (and other stuff) into the shoe rendering them unusable. It would appear that Salomon have addressed the issue since the upper of the Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground employs a new mesh material that appears to be less permeable and a bit less flexible but is perhaps more durable. Curiously, this new mesh material is not used on the Sense 3 Ultra, more on that in a review of the Sense 3 Ultra that I will post soon. Time will tell if the new mesh material performs better. Initial runs have indicated that the material is just as form-fitting and comfortable as the previous material. Also, the surface of this material has a sheen as if there is a thin top coating and as a result the feel of the material is more film-like than woven fabric-like. It is difficult to image this material so I suggest taking a look for yourself, but here is an attempt:
The major change for the Sense 3 line, and the one most anticipated, is the new, aggressive outsole on the Soft Ground model. The sole is very much similar to the Speedcross with respect to the shape of the chevron lugs, the spacing of the lugs , and the height of the lugs. Having been very satisfied with the traction performance of the SpeedCross, I expect this outsole to perform as well or better. The outsole material is Salomon’s Mud and Snow (M&S) “Contagrip”, which, according to Salomon is a composition and geometry optimization for grip. We will see if this is the case in actual use.
Based upon a quick comparison review and physical look-over, it does not appear that there are any significant construction differences from the Sense Ultra. The shoe still has the same 13mm/9mm geometry, a similarly shaped last and toe box, and the fit fells exactly the same as the Sense Ultra.
Initial Running Impressions
It’s mid-winter here in the Rockies and normally the trails are entirely snow covered and many of them are not accessible. However, this is turning out to be a low snow year for our area and many of the trails that I normally run in the spring, summer, and fall are accessible and some are even dirt. This has allowed me to give the S Lab Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground a try on a reasonable variety of trails from snow-covered to icy to dry dirt to mud.
I have had only about 50 km in these shoes but I can say that they have performed very well in all of the conditions I have had them in and particularly well in mud and packed powder snow. The aggressive lugs are well suited to attaining traction on the typical packed powder that we see in the Rocky Mountain West- in flat, ups, and downs, they do a great job of gripping and keeping your stride stable. Ice is a different story- in my experience any shoe that does not have spikes or hobnails is treacherous on ice. The Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground is no different- stay away from ice, whether it be on the flats or on the slopes, there is little to no stability in these conditions with this shoe. However, on anything that has the least bit of loose material to grip, these shoes are outstanding.
Unfortunately (due to low snow condition), we do have mud at this time- so I have been able to do a bit a of testing. Mud performance: excellent. The shoes have substantial grip and the mud sheds quite quickly. Some of the mud here is clay-based; what this means is that it is mud that can lead to 5 pound accumulations on some shoes- this is heinous mud (I once ran into a a section of this type of mud on a mountain bike ride and made it about 100 meters before the accumulated mud had totally “shut down” the bike to the point where it would not even roll- I had to carry the bike out and slowly remove the clay mud with a stick. In fact, there are still traces of this mud on my bike 5 years later). The Sense 3 Ultra Soft Grounds retained only a minimal amount of mud and what was retained was shed within about 50 meters of the end of the clay section. This clay mud is my “gold standard” for evaluating mud performance and the Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground performed better than any other shoe I have tried.
The feel of the Soft Ground shoe is very much like that of the Fellcross where the deep lugs definitely give a “dash pot”-like sensation on hard surfaces. It is something that one can come accustomed to and certainly worth the effort to attain the traction in low shear terrain.
I will be in this shoe for the remainder of the winter running season. First impressions are very positive and I am glad that Salomon have seen fit to offer this model in the Sense line- something that many have been asking for since the introduction of the original model. Updates and a “box-to-bin” summary will be forthcoming.
$160 US. $40 less than the original Sense and $20 less than the Sense Ultra from 2013. Looks like the price on the Sense line is going in the right direction. As I have indicated in the past, the value per unit cost for the Sense has been very good based on the number of miles I have gotten out of the shoes. Only time and miles will tell if the Sense 3 Ultra Soft Ground lives up to past performance in this line.
A nice shoe with great traction, light weight, and outstanding trail feel. If you face muddy or low shear conditions, then this is a shoe you should consider; if you like an aggressive outsole, independent of trail terrain, then this shoe is a great light weight option.
Update 11 February 2014:
I failed to mention initially that the speed lacing no longer threads through the tongue with the elaborate lace pocket integration as seen on the Sense line previously. In the Sense 3 Ultra the lace pocket is a much simpler over-sewn mesh fabric piece that the laces now just lay on top of rather than threading through. The orientation of the lace pocket has also switched back to the “bottom loading” configuration seen on most other Salomon trail running shoes. Unfortunately this construction has a significant issue- when the laces are tightened they tighten down, in a criss-cross fashion, upon the lace pocket making the pocket almost useless. I have been able to get the excess lace in there with some effort but I am not sure how secure it will be; only trail testing will determine if it is secure enough. This seems like a bad trade-off for a simpler manufacturing construction and therefore a lower manufacturing cost.