Note 20 June 2017: Salomon have just announced the S Lab Sense Ultra 2 which is said to be available Spring 2018 (likely in Jan/Feb 2018). The new version includes more cushioning and a wider last in the midfoot. Salomon have also incorporated some technology from their cross country ski boot designs for skate boots- a stiff plastic element that crosses over the foot just below the ankle and is integrated with the speed lacing. This element is called “Skin Guard” and supposedly allows for better control on descents. Although not as adjustable as the ski boot equivalent, the “Skin Guard” looks like it might be an interesting development. Unfortunately, the shoe is now heavier at 300 gms for size 9 (US). Pictures and brief description here.
Last summer Salomon announced that they were splitting up the S Lab Sense line to include two product branches- the “traditional” low drop, low cushion, “Kilian” shoe and a new product branch specifically for those runners who desire a bit more cushion and mid-foot support. The “traditional” shoes are continuing the evolution of the S Lab Sense line with the S Lab Sense 6 and S Lab Sense 6SG models.
The new line of cushier shoes is called the S Lab Sense Ultra. Although the “ultra” designation has been used in the S Lab Sense line previously, this shoe is clearly designed for the demands of longer distance ultra trail use. But the differences in this shoe with the rest of the S Lab Sense line for 2017 are numerous and truly make the S Lab Sense Ultra a quite separate entity.
The question has come up in the comments as to whether the Sense Ultra is a direct replacement for the S Lab Wings 8. Although the Wings 8 is still in the SS 2017 line-up for Salomon it may have a short life. The Wings 8 is definitely a different shoe but the crossover with the Sense Ultra is so substantial it seems to lead to quite a bit of duplication at this point; we shall see.
The S Lab Sense Ultra for 2017 has a reversed color scheme from the rest of the S Lab Sense line with a black body and a red heel (compared to the red body and a white (Sense) or black (Sense SG) heel). The new S Lab graphic is also in evidence. Sensibly (pun intended), speed laces and a lace pocket are included.
All of the industry-leading Salomon fit technologies are incorporated including EndoFit, SensiFit, and OS Tendon. These fit technologies are the basis of what makes Salomon shoes such high performers.
Beyond colors, there are quite a few features that differentiate the S Lab Sense Ultra from the S Lab Sense starting with the significantly thicker toe bumper and what appear to be heftier materials in some of the overlays and the tongue. The tongue is also more padded than in the S Lab Sense, presumably to allow for additional comfort at long distances. For me, such long distance comfort has been an issue with the S Lab Sense line and I switched to the much more comfortable (and supportive) S Lab X-Series and S Lab Sonic for ultra distance races. I still will do 10 km to 30 km rugged mountain trail races and runs in the S Lab Sense however; the superior trail feel at higher paces is important. But if the race trails are buffed I will still use the X-Series/Sonic even at the shorter distances since these shoes are about the same weight as the S Lab Sense but have a larger outsole area with a less aggressive lug set-up, both of which can positively affect pace in smoother conditions.
The toebox of the Sense Ultra is slightly narrower than the X-Series/Sonic but not as narrow as the S Lab Sense 5 (I have not examined the Sense 6 yet). The polymer overlays have the same pattern as recent editions. The mesh used in the upper forefoot and medial/lateral midfoot is also the familiar material that Salomon has been using in the Sense line for the past couple of years. The polymer overlay at the toe comes up a fair distance onto the top of the forefoot and also up the lateral and medial midfoot to protect this mesh from wear-out in high stress/high abrasion areas. Such mesh wear-out was problem with early editions of the S Lab Sense.
The heel area has the familiar beefy and stiff, symmetric construction used in the Sense line for years. The heel counter is nicely padded and rolls over the top edge and down a bit. The liner material in this area appears to be a bit “loose” (see plan view photo above) but once the shoe is on there is no extra material being bunched up. This heel liner material is the one area on the X-Series/Sonic that actually wears. I have worn holes in the material after about 500 km but the wear does not adversely affect the comfort or performance of the shoe. Based on the construction here I expect this sort of wear will be seen on the Sense Ultra- but only time will tell.
The midsole is where the largest differences between the Sense and the Sense Ultra lie. All models utilize the “Dual Density” EVA compound that has been used in this line for a while but that is where the similarities end. First, the Sense Ultra has a drop of 9mm compared to the 4mm drop of the Sense 6- this is a big difference. Second the cushioning in the Sense Ultra is much increased over the Sense. With a 25mm heel and a 16mm forefoot the Sense Ultra stands in a different category when compared to the 18mm heel and a 14mm forefoot of the Sense 6. This is a substantial difference in midsole thickness, particularly in the heel. All of the Sense models have been increasing midsole thickness over the past few years indicating that even the Salomon athletes have been pushing to get a bit more comfort out of the Sense. But the Sense Ultra has taken this cushioning to new level. The 2017 Sonic 2 also has similar degree of thicker cushioning as the Sense Ultra, but actually offers another mm of cushioning at the forefoot. A review of the Sonic 2 is forthcoming.
Both the higher drop and thicker midsole lead to increased comfort. The higher drop gives substantial midfoot support that is highly appreciated the longer a race (or run) is. The added cushioning in the Sense Ultra should not only give a cushier ride in general but also allow for speedier descents (particularly in buffed terrain) and give some reprieve for inattention to sharp rocks and other features known to lead to foot bruising. While running, the added cushioning is most notable in the heel as will be addressed below.
Also new in this model are the Hoka-like lateral and medial chassis supports that approach the mid-plane of the shoe. This support system can help highly cushioned shoes from being too tippy- something that many runners have complained about for years in “maximal” shoe designs.
The outsole of the Sense Ultra is of a new design pattern not seen previously. The pattern is asymmetric and is made up of sparsely arranged diamond shaped lugs with a substantial (3mm) depth. The outsole is purely trail specific and you will want to limit the number miles on pavement. The compound is Salomon’s Premium Wet Grip ContraGrip material and this outsole should perform just as outstandingly as it does on the S Lab XA Alpine shoes reviewed earlier.
The ProFeel TPU film rock protection is included, as expected and, combined with the added midsole cushioning, should make these shoes pretty bombproof on even the most technical of terrain. Mud performance will likely be good but this always has to be tested in the various types of mud as the outsole composition plays a big role in mud adherence. But again, if the mud performance of the XA Alpine is indicative then these shoes will be a good choice in muddy conditions.
Historically the S Lab Sense line has been a “flat” and neutral shoe tending toward a minimalist user base. With the introduction of the X-Series in 2015 and continued with the Sonic in 2016, a significant “rocker” geometry is slowly taking hold over many models in the Salomon lineup. This is continued here with the S Lab Sense Ultra where a significant “rocker” is present even to the point of being very much like that seen in Salomon’s “Hoka”-like Sense Propulse (2016) and Sense ProMax (2017).
The “rocker” geometry is an important part of any cushioned shoe since the foot-set deformation at impact into the midsole cushioning leads to a noticeable barrier impeding forward motion. The “rocker” geometry can help overcome this issue by allowing for just a bit more rotation that makes the foot-set deformation less problematic. This geometry also promotes a forefoot-midfoot strike.
The S Lab Sense Ultra shoe is quoted as weighing in at 275 gms (9.7 oz) for a size 9 (US). My size 7.5 (US) (40 2/3 (EU)) tipped the scales at 259 gms ( 9.1 oz). This is substantially heavier than the quoted 218 gm for a size 9 (US) in the Sense 6. So there is no free lunch as all the cushioning and support in the Sense Ultra comes with added weight. Weight matters- a lot, particularly for lighter weight (sub 125 lbs) runners like me. But in long races comfort will trump weight- and some will argue the same for longer training runs. The older I get the more I like comfort and this shoe tips to the side of comfort with a reasonably low weight. Not perfect but getting there.
initial running impressions
It has been an epic snow year here in the central Idaho mountains- over nine feet of snow and counting. So there is no dirt to test the Sense Ultra on but there is plenty of packed powder trail for running. I’ve had the Sense Ultra out for about 30 km of mixed running including nice packed powder, some ice, and reasonable vert. As expected the fit is superb and the feel is that of a slipper with great grip. Proprioception is excellent and I find the midfoot support to be similar to the X-Series/Sonic.
The added cushioning is immediately noticeable, particularly in the heel and accentuated on downhills. Although cushy, the run feel is not overly so as is the case in so many highly cushioned shoes. The ice performance is very similar to that of the XA Alpine- good grip but one will still need spikes on any icy downhill.
I did one run with a new X-Series on one foot (I stockpiled some X-Series because Salomon put “traditional” laces on the Sonic for 2016) and the Sense Ultra on the other. The Sense Ultra has a slightly more cushioned forefoot but otherwise the feel is the same as the X-Series. The S Lab Sonic 2 (2017) has a similar amount of cushioning in the heel and what appears to be a bit more cushioning in the forefoot compared to the Sense Ultra. As indicated above, I will be reviewing the S Lab Sonic 2 once we see some pavement and dirt here in Sun Valley. Unfortunately Salomon has continued with the “traditional” laces on the S Lab Sonic 2- a big mistake.
Although I will need many more miles to confirm this, the S Lab Sense Ultra seems to strike a nice balance of cushioning and proprioception much like the X-Series and Sonic. In fact I shall suggest that these shoes are very much a trail-specific X-Series/Sonic- which is exactly what I have been hoping Salomon would produce. The more aggressive outsole of the Sense Ultra will likely handle even the most technical trails from a grip perspective. This means that we might have something here that gets just that much closer to the never attainable, near-perfect ultra trail mountain running shoe.
$180 US. Steep as always, but likely a good value given the usual durability of the S Lab shoes.
Finally, a cushioned Sense for the trail with good midfoot support and light(ish) weight. This may be my go-to shoe for the upcoming season. Stay tuned.