Salomon S Lab Ultra – Final Update- 2500+ km and still going

I reviewed the Salomon S Lab Ultra trail shoe last July at about 1000 km of use. The shoe was performing well across the board and was stacking up to be better than the excellent S Lab Sense Ultra that proceeded it. The fit, stability, and comfort were superior to any Salomon shoe that I have used. The SensiFit “stability”  straps that were initially considered overkill or gimmicky have been found to be highly functional in truly technical terrain. The only downside to the shoe was the weight- it weighs more than the S Lab Sense Ultra by almost 10%. But I have never specifically noticed the increased weight and perhaps that is because of the slightly improved fit, increased stability, and overall superior comfort of the S Lab Ultra when compared to the Sense Ultra.

Salomon S Lab Ultra after about 2500 km of trail use. An old friend ready to retire.

This post will document exactly how well the S Lab Ultra has held up for use exceeding 2500 kms- the bottom line: exceedingly well!

use

I have used the S Lab Ultra for a wide variety of training and racing. These uses include 10-13 h of weekly trail running on 50/50 (technical/smooth) trails in the Northern Rocky Mountains, many 1 hour bounding sessions up steep terrain, many lactate threshold (LT) and VO2max interval sessions in hill repeat mode, many LT and VO2max interval sessions on rolling terrain at and exceeding critical velocity, numerous trail races from 20 km to 42 km, and a little bit of road running*.

The S Lab Ultra has performed outstandingly in all of these uses and particularly in steep, loose climbs and descents. The SensiFit “straps” do a great job of stabilizing the foot in loose conditions and allow for noticeably more traction and control. The shoe has been an all-around performer.

I have just now retired these shoes. Although they are still performing, I feel a bit less traction on downhills due to lateral heel wear and rather than go down I have started a new pair for the season.

It’s remarkable that there are any lugs left but the lateral heels are essentially gone after 1200 km or so of mostly steep, rocky downhills.

upper

With the exception of the S Lab Sense Ultra, I have found that trail running shoes typically wear out somewhere on the upper first- developing a hole and allowing debris into the shoe and thereby making the shoe not useable. In the case of the S Lab Ultra (as in the predecessor S Lab Sense Ultra), the upper has been incredibly durable. Only in the last 500 kms have any holes developed and those that have are very small and have not allowed debris into the shoe. The following are a few images of the various areas where holes have developed or abrasion has begun to compromise the upper.

It is apparent that the substantial polymer overlays used in S Lab Ultra have increased the durability of the upper as these overlays both protect the underlying fabric and limit the extent to which a hole can grow. This is perhaps not a primary intended use of the overlays but it certainly has worked out that way. With the exception of the S Lab Sense Ultra, the uppers of other S Lab shoes without these more extensive overlays have worn out much earlier due to large holes.

The fit has remained “ultra”-comfortable throughout the life of the shoe. The shoes have become very much an extension of my foot and essentially disappear from my thoughts while on technical terrain allowing a total focus on foot placement and rep-rate.

midsole

This is likely the most remarkable experience with these shoes- the midsole is just not loosing it’s cushioning effect or rock protection. Although certainly less than a new pair, the midsole comfort is still there and still allows for long runs with no concern for foot comfort. In addition the ProFeel Film rock protection is entirely intact and performs as well at 2500 kms as it did when new, although exhibiting a bit less longitudinal stiffness. The S Lab Sense Ultra midsole and rock protection began to breakdown somewhere around 2000 kms- excellent performance but this shoe is even better.

outsole

The outsole has been similarly durable and the Premium Wet Traction ContraGrip compound has performed well throughout in both wet and dry conditions. With the exception of lateral heel and forefoot wear, the lugs are still providing excellent grip across the board. At 2500 kms this is nothing but remarkable in my experience.

This use works out to about $0.12/mile ($0.07/km) which, with the exception of the S Lab Sense Ultra 2017, is about a factor two better than any other shoe that I have used.

issues

None, yes none! I put these shoes on and have run over 1500 miles in them and never once had to deal with an issue, discomfort, or compromise.

bottom line

An outstandingly durable, high performance trail shoe that will not disappoint. Given that the 2019 replacement S Lab Ultra 2 has only minor changes (it appears that Salomon have only removed the forward-most SensiFit strap and left everything else alone) one can expect a similar experience with the new model.   Some have noted that the last is a bit narrow so try these shoes on to ensure that the “narrowness” is acceptable. The Salomon S Lab Ultra is highly recommended.

*(Although I will run distances greater than 50 km in training, I do not race ultras anymore. I find the GI issues to be not only annoying for a competitive runner but, more importantly, I have the basis to assert that these GI issues are unhealthy. So no more ultra races for me.)

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The Road to Beitostolen – Course Profile Analysis and Training Update

As discussed in a previous post, the courses for the Beitostolen 2019 Masters World Championships (Masters World Cup (MWC)) are very well documented and described due to the homologation certificates provided by the Organizing Committee in Beitostolen. The existence of the homologation certificates is primarily due to the fact that FIS World Cup races are held at the Beitostolen complex and this requires detailed homologation certification by the FIS. As a result, the organizers have substantial profile data for the trails/tracks within the complex. However, the Beitostolen organizing committee have also gone a further step and obtained full FIS certification for each of the three loops that will be utilized for the 2019 MWC- courses that are not used for World Cup events. This has provided reliable, detailed data on the courses for the competitions- a very good thing!

What is missing however is actual continuous profiles of each of the courses that are made up of various combinations of the three certified loops. With this in mind, I have “knitted” together the loop data for each of the primary loop distances- the 10 km course and the 15 km course. This allows one to better observe the “flow” of the courses and to develop individual strategies for racing. I have also compared the Beitostolen courses with the courses in Klosters (MWC 2017) and Minneapolis (MWC 2018).

Presented below are the 10 km and 15 km courses for the Beitostolen MWC plotted utilizing normalized elevation in feet. As these data are taken visually from the provided profile images, the race course profiles represent a best-effort transcription to digital data which may have some minor errors. However, the course flow and magnitude of climbs are all accurately represented.

There is one climb in particular that should be noted- the climb at about the 6.8 km distance mark in the 15km course (on the Urban Round or “B” Loop in the C-B-A loop sequence). This climb is only in the 15 km, 30 km, and 45 km races.

The profile provided by the organizers shows that this hill climbs from about 783 m to about 820 m (37 m/121 feet) over the 2050 m to about 2300 m “B” Loop distance marks (a total of 250m distance- about half of the total climb distance). This yields an average grade of about 15% for this 250 m portion of the climb and, based on analysis of the other loop profiles, represents the most challenging hill for the competitions. The hill continues another 200 m but significantly decreases grade for the reminder of the climb (to about the 2500 m “B” Loop distance mark) with the exception of a “bump” at the very end. The provided homologation certificate shows the average grade for the entire climb to be 9.1% with a section as high as 21.5% (not sure where this steep section is but it may be at the very top of the climb). Although not a particularly long climb, the 15% average grade for the first 250m and then a continued, albeit gradual (about 3.5% average), climb for another 200m seems that it will be challenging, particularly for classic skiers. Combining this with the 21% grade of unknown length and location (this will probably be a herringbone or Klaebo “Klomp” for classic skiers) adds additional challenge. For freestyle skiers it will not be as challenging a climb and might represent a good hill to put on a surge to break up a pack.

Course comparisons with past Masters world cups (2017 and 2018)

The 15 km and 10 km Beitostolen course profiles are presented below along with the profiles for the Klosters 2017 MWC. It is clear that for the 15 km courses the total climb is very similar between the the venues but the “flow” of the courses are not. The Klosters 10 km course is much more difficult than the Beitostolen 10 km course, with 125 m (410 feet) more climb and the different ‘flow” characteristic. The Klosters courses “notch” up to higher and higher elevation with no extended downhills until the very end- this makes these courses more difficult due to the lack of recovery between climbs. The Beitostolen courses should allow for fairly high speeds, conditions permitting.

Comparison of the Beitostolen 15 km and 10 km courses with the Minneapolis 2018 MWC courses shows exactly how “less difficult” the Minneapolis courses were. Firstly, primarily due to snow conditions, the Minneapolis courses were all shortened significantly. Uniquely, the 30 km and 45 km classic races were shortened due to a train blocking the course after the first lap. As a result the “15 km” course was 13 km, the “10 km” course was 6.5 km and the “30 km” course was 22 km (but would have been 28 km even if the train did not block the course). Secondly, there are no extended climbs in the Minneapolis courses and, although not shown here, the 30 km and 45 km courses had an entirely flat 5 km section in each 15 km lap. Thirdly, the total climb for each of the Minneapolis courses is significantly lower than for either the Beitostolen or Klosters courses- 30% to 50% less!

Note: the Minneapolis course profiles have been derived from GPS data taken during the competitions.

As far as preparations for the Beitostolen courses, it seems that a concentration on extended climbs at or about 10% average grade will do one well, particularly for classic skiers. Given the numerous steep sections, classic skiers should be practicing their herringbone skills as these steep sections appear to come frequently throughout both the 15 km and 10 km courses. Although the courses may ski differently to what the profile might suggest, having a good LT block of training prior to any peaking protocol will be of significant utility. An efficient herringbone will also be a welcome skill at heart rates above LT.

competition

Although registration is not yet closed after an extension from 31 January to 15 February, the M07 is again the largest group and many of the perennial medalists from the recent past as well as some competitive skiers moving up from the M06 category have registered. It looks like the classic fields will have the deepest competition but there are some excellent freestyle M07 skiers as well. Unfortunately a number of the past M07 freestyle medalists are not currently registered- hopefully they will in the next week.

Team Bumble Bee decided to go with a mix of techniques for Beitostolen- selecting the 15 km free and the 10 km and 30 km classic races. We are both committed to being well-rounded skiers and not focusing on just one technique. It makes life interesting and we get to mix it up with a different set of skiers for the free technique race.

training

Team Bumble Bee is in a final volume block of training prior to our peaking protocol. The first week of the block has 18-20 h of training but also significant intensity to ensure that the training load is sufficient for a maximal super compensation effect. After a few days of recovery, this block ends with a 30 km freestyle race with 600 m (1968 feet) of climbing at altitude (2000 m/6500 feet). This race course is very similar to the 30 km Beitostolen course (two 15 km courses), with similar steeps and downhills- should be a good simulation opportunity.

Bumble all alone and catching back after sipping a feed in the local 34 km downhill freestyle race.

We both had reasonable results in the local 34 km downhill freestyle race this past weekend, although the profile of the race does not suit our strengths of climbing and surges as there were essentially no climbs. The course is perfect for a large, powerful skier- physical traits that would not be used to describe Team Bumble Bee! But with enough effort the “bees” can be competitive.

Best of training to all of those (if any) who are reading this!

It’s All About the Vertical is back

Team Bumble Bee is still steadfastly working away at writing “Brave Enough – a Training Handbook for Masters Cross Country Skiers” and I initially thought that much of the training theory, planning, and execution presented on this blog would be used in the handbook. As we continue writing, we are finding that virtually everything is being re-written in one way or another. So I have restored all of the past content on this site and will continue to add to it as I have time, interest, or should an interesting subject come about. The re-writing has slowed the progress on the handbook but it is likely that perseverance will ultimately win out.

I know many have asked for access to past content here at It’s All About the Vertical- it is now provided and hopefully, going forward, some new content as well. Enjoy!

The Road to Beitostolen – looking forward to deep competition

Team Bumble Bee is well into preparations for the 2019 World Masters Championships in Beitostolen, Norway in early March. It is always challenging to have just one  “A” race so late in the season. The required focus makes other, earlier, races less important but these races are still critical to the necessary progression to ensure a peak performance. Balancing the race schedule with training whilst not getting “stale” is the goal for the 2018-2019 season. Arriving at the start line in Norway fast, fit, and fresh- that is the overarching goal.

We are excited about the races in Norway because we are also hopeful that more high-level competition will show up given the location right in the center of the cross country skiing mecca that is Scandinavia. Deeper competition, particularly in the women’s fields, will be a welcome thing. Team Bumble Bee is focused on competing against the best skiers in the world- it is what drives us and motivates us.

We’re monitoring the Datasport MWC entrants list to decide which races to enter base on the competition- we’ll enter the races that have the stiffest competition. At the 2018 MWC in Minneapolis, for example, none of the top M07 skaters showed up but most of the top M07 classic skiers did, so I entered only the classic races. Hopefully we will see strong M07 fields in both techniques so that a skate race might be part of the series for me. For the F06’s, we just hope that some strong competitors who do not usually compete in F06 MWC show up given the venue location. Otherwise things may be a bit boring for Bee.

training, tweaks, and time trials

For the past three years I have been utilizing a “block periodization” protocol for training. This protocol is useful for advanced, long-time endurance athletes who wish to attempt to break off a performance plateau and further maximize their output in races. For me it works well but results in a rather monastic existence as all intensity workouts are completed alone since there are few others that take this route. Bee likes to do intensity with others and there are very few “racers” here in the Sun Valley area that actually train to race with structured interval workouts. So she has been stuck these last couple of years doing most of her intensity alone as well.  As a result, this year I have decided to return to a “traditional” or mixed periodization protocol that, after a base period, utilizes numerous four week cycles that include volume focus (V), intensity focus (I), or recovery focus (R) weeks to build toward a peaking period prior to “A” races (note: V+ and I+ are peak weeks for volume and intensity, respectively). This will allow Bee and me to do intensity workouts together and challenge one another in head-to-head repeats or by giving one another “head starts” and then try to catch during the interval.  Another technique to make things interesting in mis-matched pairs is to allow the slower person to use a fast wax to help them keep up. It is fun and makes the intensity sessions just that much more enjoyable- yes enjoyable! We love intensity and look forward to our twice-weekly sessions. We see way too much of an attitude of dread on the part of many other athletes when it comes to intensity. If something is perceived as “dreadful” it will likely be dreadful. Better to take a positive posture on something as critical to racing success as intensity sessions!

My annual training plan for the 2018/19 season is shown below and shows the traditional periodization through a series of 4-week “build” blocks leading up to our only “A” race this year- the World Masters Championships in Beitostolen. Norway in early March.

2018-2019 training plan. For a larger format view, ctrl-click on the image and select “open in new window” and then click the image.

In addition to the volume (V), intensity (I), and recovery (R) week indications, there is a bit more detail in this plan than I have shown in the past. The first additional detail is a row which shows targeted total hours of weekly training  and the second is a row showing estimated “intensity minutes” for the training week. “Intensity minutes” are the amount of time spent doing specific intensity workouts and are derived from a percentage of the total hours of training for a given week. We utilize suggested intensity proportions that Friel has found to work well with advanced athletes. Presented below is his chart for determining intensity time percentages as a function of what type of period one is executing upon. Time at intensity (intensity minutes) includes rest periods for whatever structure you are using. For instance a “lactate threshold” (LT) workout of 6 X 8 min with 3 min rest has 48 minutes at threshold work and 15 minutes of rest, so the total “intensity minutes” is 63 minutes. The weekly intensity sessions are designed to align with the percentages of intensity minutes in the table below.

Friel’s chart for determining intensity proportions as a function of type of period in a structure, periodized training protocol. See blog post here.

Friel has developed a system of periodization that includes base periods, two build periods, a peak period, and, finally, a race period. Build 2 is probably the most critical part of the program as it is the highest prolonged intensity training of the entire cycle. At 24% of total training time at zone 4 and above, this is a challenging period and one that I find to be what best prepares me for not only for racing but also in being able to absorb subsequent training efficiently and enjoyably.

As you will see in the training plan, I prefer to number all the build periods sequentially rather than have just two types- Build 1 and Build 2, where Build 1 introduces race specificity along with a few other elements and Build 2 focuses on race specificity whilst decreasing other elements. Instead I design each Build period according to the need as determined “on the fly” as there are so many extraneous factors that come into play during the season. However, the Build periods do not stray too far from what Friel suggests- I just tweak them for my personal needs.

We live in a “de-energized” nordic community where many formerly avid racers have gotten old and have selected to no longer race. These ‘oldsters” have not been replaced by younger racers because the area is so expensive to live in and the (few) jobs in the area do not pay sufficiently to offset the high cost of living in a ski resort. Accordingly, very few younger people have the wherewithal to select Sun Valley as a place to locate. All of this, of course, is in addition to the rarity of a nordic ski racer to begin with. As a result there is less energy for putting on races in the Sun Valley area and where in the past we typically had 4-5 races on the local trails we are now down to 1-2. So… Team Bumble Bee has devised a series of time trials that we schedule into our training plans. These TTs are on specific courses so we can track times and speeds over the years. We have two 10 km courses and an 18 km course that do a reasonable job of replicating what one might see at a World Masters race with  respect to climbs and downhills. The TTs play an integral part in determining our form and identifying any deficiencies that can be worked on in the coming weeks of training. Doing TTs is a very useful tool, particularly when you do not have many local or regional races to choose from.

Strength – the key to excellence in skiing

Strength has become a centerpiece of our training for a number of reasons. The three primary drivers are:

  1. As an aging athletes, we are fighting an important battle with the well-documented process of sarcopenia (loss of muscle) that is the result of hormonal changes as we age. Natural levels of human growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and testosterone all are falling of at a fairly rapid rate. This puts strength work at the top of the training pyramid for aging athletes. Such strength work both builds muscle but also provides the body with the stimulus to produce the hormones and growth factor that would otherwise be absent.
  2. Cross country skiing has become an increasingly upper body/core-strength dominated sport. Advances in technique and equipment have allowed for increased reliance on the upper body muscle groups. A strong and durable upper body, connected via a similarly strong and durable core to the already well-developed lower body muscle groups is critical for fast and efficient skiing.
  3. One of the most significant elements that we, as aging athletes, lose is dynamic/explosive power. This ability is critical in the kick phase of classic skiing and the push-off phase in skate skiing. Maintaining and developing explosive power is a difficult thing for older skiers but one that, with properly designed strength exercises, can be straightforwardly accomplished, albeit with lower expectations that what one would have as a youngster.

Given these realities, our strength program is a year-round, intensive activity that is always in progression. There are a few periods of maintenance, but these are only during the most competitive periods, otherwise strength is playing a large role in the weekly plan.

We endorse a three-times weekly strength session protocol of between 60 minutes and 90 minutes (30-50 minutes during the race period). The protocol includes dynamic exercises that can be directly mapped onto motions and force production as similar to cross country skiing as is possible. Static exercises such as planks have no place in this program. Rather, a starting point of a plank may progress with a dynamic upper body movement in a way such that it approximates a specific cross country skiing movement. Similarly, pull-ups combined with a dynamic lower body movement are utilized. This theme permeates all of the exercises we do.

bietostolen race courses

The organizers at Beitostolen have done an outstanding job at selecting and documenting the races courses that will be used at the Masters World Cup. They probably have a large database course measurements to tap into since the site is also a World Cup venue and the courses therefore have been precisely measured for homologation with FIS. Leveraging these data for the Masters World Cup has led to some nice courses for competition at the masters level.

I summarized the FIS/World Masters Cross Country Ski Association (WMCCSA) requirements for the Masters World Cup last year and compared those requirements with the World Cup requirements. Table I presents the data and the comparison.

Table I. FIS and WMCCSA requirements for Masters World Cup events compared to requirements for FIS World Cup events.

Beitostolen have now provided their homologation certificates for each of the three courses that will be used during the 2019 Masters World Cup. The certificates are shown below for the most difficult  “A” course (World Cup Loop), the less difficult “B” course (Urban Loop), and the easy “C” course (Lake Loop or “geezer” course for F09 and older and M10 and older).

Here are the uphill summaries:

Course “A” (World Cup Loop):

Course “B” (Urban Loop):

Course “C” (Lake Loop):

The courses for the 5 km, 10 km, 15 km, 30 km, and 45 km races are built from combinations of the three course loops. The following course sequences will be utilized:

5 km: C

10 km: C-A

15 km: C-B-A

30 km: 2 X 15km (C-B-A-C-B-A)

45 km: 3 X 15 km (C-B-A-C-B-A-C-B-A)

The F09 and older and M10 and older only use the “C” course for their 5 km and 10 km race distances.

Looks like we will all be very familiar with the C-B-A combo by the end of the 2019 MWC!

The terrain summaries for each of the courses follows:

Course “A”:

Course “B”:

Course “C”:

It is a delight to have all of this information available so that one can simulate the courses on one’s home trails. We’ve already got some ideas for a couple of loops here in Sun Valey that might do a good job of mimicking the the “A” and “B” loops. The organizers, however, have not provided a summary of the height difference (HD), maximum climb (MC), and total climb (TC) for each of the race lengths. Table II is a summary of these data:

Table II. Height difference (HD), maximum climb (MC), and total climb (TC) for the three loop courses and the five race distances.

The organizers in Beitostolen have pretty much hit the specifications that the FIS and WMCCSA require (see Table I and Table II) for Masters World Cup events. The total climbing is similar to but slightly greater than that at the Klosters 2017 MWC (except for the 15 km where the Klosters 15 km course exceeded the FIS/WMCCSA limits for total climb) and much greater (by about a factor of about two) than the Minneapolis 2018 MWC. Minneapolis was challenged with low snow and the organizers were limited to trails that had snowmaking or that they could get snow to. As a result the lengths of the races and the climbs were reduced relative to what was planned. And, of course, there was the train that blocked the course in the 30 km/45 km classic races which in turn lead to further shortened races and less climbing. Bottom line for Beitostolen: focus on climbing because there will be a lot of it.

It will be interesting to see how the Beitostolen courses will ski. They appear to have good “rhythm” but you never know for sure until you ski a course.

Based upon inspection of the profiles, the 10 km course will not have a significant climb until about the 7.2 km point and after a downhill there is a steady climb to the finish for the last 600 m. It will be important to push these sections of the course as it might be hard to get away in the undulating terrain in the first 7 km.

Similarly, in the 15 km race there is no significant climb until about the 6.7 km mark. The course climbs sharply and then steadily for about 1.5 km so this will be a “crux” point in the race as after this climb there will not be another significant climb until about the 11 km mark and then the 600 m climb to the finish. Since the 30 km and 45 km races use the same loop sequence these observations apply to these races as well.

Focus, finesse, and finishes

In my wrap-up of the Minneapolis WMC, I noted that I was losing focus at points throughout the races, that I was not picking the best (or even just good) lines through turns, and I was not setting up properly for finishes as I lost two out of three sprints in the individual races. So the theme for Beitostolen will be race focus, trail finesse, and smart finishes. I’ve been actively working on all of these elements in training and hopefully it all comes to fruition in a series of races coming up in the next few weeks. If not- more work to do!

Brave Enough – a new project by Team Bumble Bee

Team Bumble Bee (aka Betsy and Bob Youngman) have embarked on a new project:

Brave Enough – A Handbook on Training for Masters Cross Country Skiers

“it’s all about the vertical” is taking a hiatus.

You can monitor progress at the Brave Enough site where there will be updates and new content forthcoming.

Thanks for reading, commenting , and providing lively interaction on “it’s all about the vertical”. It has been a rewarding experience!

Salomon S Lab Ultra at 1000 km – a great shoe gets better

About a year ago Salomon began showing the Spring 2018 product line-up for trail running. They decided (for reasons not obvious) to replace the outstanding and very popular 2017 S Lab Sense Ultra entirely- i.e. no update to the current model, no Sense Ultra 2, just drop the model (the Sense Ultra was still in the SS18 catalog but availability was clearly limited to the in-stock production from 2017). Given that this shoe was the best selling S Lab shoe ever, many did not understand the logic behind the decision. I too questioned this decision and,  based on my substantial experience with the Sense Ultra, purchased additional pairs for the upcoming 2018 running season.

The 2018 replacement for the S Lab Sense Ultra model is the S Lab Ultra (this shoe appears in the Salomon SS18 catalog as the S Lab Sense Ultra 2, a name that was dropped by by Salomon by Spring 2018 and replaced with the simpler “S Lab Ultra”). The S Lab Ultra is a very different shoe with a narrower last, a new upper with much more protection, a new midsole construction, and, most prominently, external (not laminated) Sensifit “straps” that are integrated with the footbed and the lacing. It is also about 50-75 gms heavier. Salomon worked with professional mountain trail runner and 100+ mile race specialist Francois D’Haene on the design and they focussed on performance optimization for the UTMB (Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc) race terrain. The shoe is rumored to be based on D’Haene’s actual foot shape that is very narrow and long.

I did not do an initial impressions review of the S Lab Ultra because I was rotating it through with a couple of pairs of Sense Ultras and did not feel that I was giving it enough testing time. Now that I have about 1000 kms on the S Lab Ultra I feel confident in what I have experienced.

All of the additional “stuff” on this shoe comes at the cost of increased weight- 285 gms for my size 7.5US/40 2/3 EU. This is to be compared with the Sense Ultra which weighs in at 260 gms. This is a small but not insignificant difference particularly for long runs/races.

Salomon S Lab Ultra 2018. A new shoe in virtually all respects when compared to the S Lab Sense Ultra of 2017, including new external sensifit straps.

A critical eye will immediately question the need for the external SensiFit “straps” in a running shoe. Given that there were no significant issues with upper stability and foothold in the Sense Ultra on challenging mountain terrain, this feature seemed to be either “gimmicky” or actually added some level of performance. Only individual testing would suffice to answer this question. One can also immediately see the heritage of the external straps in current and past Salomon S Lab Skate boots for cross country skiing. The latest (super light) iteration includes a monocoque carbon fiber shell for the lower part of the upper, a carbon fiber cuff, and an integrated strap (all for the measly sum of $1,200 US!).

Salomon S Lab Carbon Skate Boot (left) and S Lab Ultra (right) showing the cross country skiing heritage for external straps on footwear, where such straps have been included in Salomon’s top line models for over a decade.

But cross country skiing, and skate skiing in particular, is a very different situation as it comes to footwear. The fundamental skating motion involves powerful lateral strides where a stiff sole and upper are critical for efficient force production against the snow and the integrated straps assist in further immobilizing the foot to ensure no lateral movement within the boot. This scenario is not something that plays any important role in mountain trail running so it was an open question as to why Salomon put these straps onto their flagship mountain ultratrail running shoe. Well, it turns out that there are reasons and I will get to that below.

I am still looking to see if Salomon will ever use their substantial knowledge of the use of carbon fiber reinforced technology in their running shoes. It seems to be a natural progression for certain areas (like the stiff carbon fiber plate under the foot in Nike’s Zoom Vapor Fly 4%) but nothing yet from Salomon.

upper

The upper is very different from the Sense Ultra with a different mesh, much beefier toe bumper, substantial polymer overlay protection, and, of course the SensiFit “straps”. Salomon also returned to a “top loading” lace garage seen on Salomon shoes in the early part of this decade. I never had a problem when Salomon switched to a “bottom loading” configuration, but many users complained that it was difficult to get the laces into the garage due to the interference with the tightened laces. There is a simple technique that avoids this issue but some never mastered it. Now it seems that Salomon might go back to the original “top loading” approach.

Salomon S Lab Ultra uppers after 1000 kms. Notice, when compared with the Sense Ultra of 2017, the beefed-up toe bumper, substantial polymer overlay protection, and SensiFit “straps”. I expected the shoe would run warmer but it hasn’t.

Given all of the “beefing-up” of the upper I expected that the shoe would run warmer than the Sense Ultra but this did not happen. Apparently there is still sufficient ventilation, even with all of the overlays, to keep my feet as cool as they are in the Sense Ultra.

I was initially concerned about the interface between the mesh portion of the upper and the polymer overlay protection. Such interfaces typically yield the highest localized strain and can often lead to increased erosion and wear. However, even after 1000 km (600 miles) there is only the slightest evidence of erosion in these areas.

Close-up showing one of the high strain areas in the marsh-overlay area and just the very beginnings of some erosion wear along the flex axis.

midsole

The midsole is a new construction with some new materials as well. Included in the forefoot is a material that Salomon calls Energy Save that is reported to provide substantial cushioning as well as dampening- similar to the “opal” inserts used on other models. In the forefoot there is an Energy Save layer under a thiner Energy Cell+ layer as can be seen from the side of the shoe- the Energy Save is the white layer and the Energy Cell+ is the red material. Other parts of the midsole (midfoot and heel) use the Enery Cell+ material exclusively which has good cushioning characteristics but less dampening. Also included in the forefoot is a ProFeel Film layer situated between the Energy Cell+ and Energy Save layers. This combination gives ample rock protection- at least for this 128 lb runner.

outsole

The outsole is essentially the same as that of the Sense Ultra with the exception that the Sense Ultra uses a black version of the Premium Wet Grip ContraGrip compound. The S Lab Ultra uses a red version. The primary difference is that the black version has carbon particles dispersed within the polymer along with the wet-grip-inducing nano-sized silica particles and nano-sized porosity. The red version has no carbon particles. Some have noticed reduced wet-grip with the red compound. I have not experienced any significant performance reduction in this regard.

Also, the outsole does not have lugs in the middle quarter (in the arch area) similar to the original S Lab Sense “Killian” shoe from 2012. There is no ProFeel Film layer in the area but I have yet to have any issue with protection.

I am getting the same outstanding level of wear performance on the outsole as was evident with the Sense Ultra. Given the current state of the outsoles at 1000 kms, I expect to get the same kind of use that I experienced with the Sense Ultra, i.e. in excess of 2000 kms of use.

Salomon S Lab Ultra outsole after 1000 kms of mountain running in a 50/50 mix of buffed single track and rocky, technical terrain. As usual the only area that shows any wear of significance is the outer right foot rear lug- a place I scrape regularly on downhill braking.

fit and performance

The fit of the S Lab Ultra is a bit on the narrow side for Salomon and Salomon shoes have always been considered narrow when compared to the chunky, high volume fit of most shoes designed in and/or marketed in the US. I was a bit concerned but found the fit to be snug and comfortable but definitely narrower. The narrowness has some advantages when in technical terrain as the shoe will fit in between rocks that I otherwise would have had to sidestep with the slightly wider Sense Ultra. I found this to be very helpful on super technical rocky downhill trails and mountainsides where I was able to keep a rhythm that otherwise would have been necessarily syncopated and therefore slower. Nice!

I have never noticed the increased weight over the Sense Ultra in runs as long as 5 hours however one might begin to tire earlier in longer runs/races.

After these first 1000 kms, I find the fit continues to be comfortable and have had no issues with hot spots or pinching. The shoe does feel very different than the Sense Ultra however. Specifically the S Lab Ultra is stiffer and the exteroception* is reduced. Although this is generally not considered a good thing, there are trade-offs occurring that, depending on terrain, can lead to advantages. The cushioning is just slightly less than the Sense Ultra but it has not affected my comfort level even in longer runs

One of these trade-offs is stability on sharp rock. The Sense Ultra, although very good does not hold a candle to the S Lab Ultra when traversing a sharp rock field at speed. The stiffer, less compliant S Lab Ultra provides, under similar conditions, a significant increase in placement stability and a much reduced lateral displacement at the footbed. This is where the “straps” come in. One can feel the straps lock your foot in when you hit high-level technical terrain (e.g. loose, sharp rock on steep slopes).

I tested the S Lab Ultra against the Sense Ultra on multiple back-to-back intervals on a steep (25-35% grade) 300 m climb followed by a return run down. Both my sense of stability and “sure-footedness” were superior in the S Lab Ultra and my times were about 5% faster at the same exertion level (HR and RPE). 5% is a big number here and it may be much smaller on less demanding terrain but I’ll take that improvement particularly on long steep climbs and descents!

price

$180 US and well worth it. With the miles that this shoe is giving along with the comfort and performance it is a hard to beat value.

bottom line

A great replacement for the Sense Ultra with enhanced rocky terrain stability that comes at a slight cost in weight.

*many manufacturers and reviewers of trail running shoes (including me in the past) often utilize the term proprioception to describe how well a shoe allows one to “feel” the trail. However, proprioception is actually defined as: the perception of joint and body movements as well as position of the body, or body segments, in space. Whereas exteroception is the sense of the outside world’s interaction with our body mainly through touch. Exteroception is an input to the determination of proprioception. Proprioception is a much bigger thing and studies have found that it can be learned to some extent but also has a genetic component as well. As it concerns shoes, one should use the term exteroception since this is the information one is getting from the shoes to allow the brain to then compute a proprioceptic understanding of the instantaneous position of the body in space. It’s the difference between “trail feel through the feet” (exteroception) and “total body position feel” (proprioception).

Transition to Running

Each ski season ends with a transition to running that, for many, can be difficult and exposes one to potential injury. For me, the six month ski season results in not taking a single step running even though I mentally try to convince myself to put a regular run schedule together. The skiing is just too pleasurable and the race schedule dictates a rather structured training regimen that, at the level I am skiing at, does not allow for much non-ski-specific activities. Younger athletes will often put an easy run as a second workout in their schedule, particularly if the skiing conditions are marginal. But as an oldster and being in a place that always has good skiing in good conditions from about early November to well into April, it just does not make sense to try and mix in running.

So, there exists this delicate transition from primarily skiing to primarily running where the body must fairly rapidly absorb an abrupt change in skeletal-muscular impact forces. The problem one faces after an active ski racing season is that you can come into the running season in exceptional cardiovascular condition and therefore with an engine that can support high volumes and intensity. Unfortunately one’s body will not be ready to abruptly accept all of that pounding. If one is not careful, pesky and sometimes long-lived injury can prevail and disrupt the running season-and even next year’s ski season. It is well worth taking such a transition slowly and methodically toward a running volume that will support a race schedule. Having ramped up volume and intensity too quickly in the past I now subscribe to a transition process that, over a three week period, takes training from 100% skiing to 100% running and only then begins to add substantial volume and intensity.

The lower south-facing slopes are clear of snow but anything on the north sides still has many feet of snow. It is always a challenge in early spring to find a “loop” of dirt to start training on. It often involves a convoluted “hamster-wheel” of ups and downs but it’s all we’ve got and it’s better than taking chances on ice.

This year I will be doing a trail marathon race in early May- as early a race as I have ever done after an active racing ski season. This means that I need to transition from skiing in late March to a 100% run schedule and get prepared to run 26 trail miles (42 km) all in about 6 weeks. This is not an easy task, but I will outline my approach below.

The reason I chose to do this early trail marathon is that it is on a course I have always wanted to race and I have some excellent competition for my age group. Normally there is no one in my age group that will give me good competition, but this race attracts a runner my age who is still training hard and putting up very good times. He is a very accomplished mountain runner, has held overall course records for the Pikes Peak marathon and currently has numerous age group course records on both the Pikes Peak course and the race course for this trail marathon in early May. I have my work cut out for me and it will be a valuable experience to race this guy, independent of the outcome. I will be hard pressed to put out a peaked effort and may have to settle for a paced effort instead but the calibration and experience is worth it. We can also take advantage of some great whitewater kayaking on the Arkansas where Bee will try out some new boats.

I have two other mountain trail races scheduled this spring- a 35 km 1400m vert (4500 feet) race in early June and a 25 km 750m vert (2500 feet) race in mid-June. Below you will find my proposed training schedule for this period- late March-June. I generally take July for adventuring in the mountains and then get back to ski-specific training starting 1 Aug- such will be the case this year.

training progression

This training progression is fairly aggressive and as such the first race (the trail marathon) will necessarily be a training race with a conservative pacing strategy. Avoiding overuse injuries is crucial to a successful running season so at any sign of a developing musculo-sketetal issue in the first race will require backing off, stoping and stretching, or even walking if necessary.

Bee climbs up Proctor Ridge on the last bits of snow on the south-facing side. Looking good (and good to have her back on the trails) after figuring out some ankle and knee issues.

Presented below is the planned running training for the last week of March 2018, April 2018, and May 2018. One will note a significant amount of strength training- this is because of the central importance of upper body strength and core in cross country skiing and the fact that at 62 y/o (with T and HGH declining), I cannot afford to lose a single fiber of the strength that I have developed over the last 5 years. Without the continuous stimuli, strength will diminish and it will be difficult (i.e. time consuming) to re-establish prior to the ski season. Keeping up the strength work year-round just goes with territory of an athlete who competes in cross county skiing at the top of the international masters level. Although not yet reflected in this plan, I will be adding some double pole roller skiing starting in May- likely 2-3 times a week starting at 45 min and progressing from there. This work maintains the neuromuscular adaptations and muscular endurance necessary to be efficient in double poling. It will also allow for further refinements in technique.

The  three month progression shown here, if successful, will likely serve as a spring season template going forward. I like templates that can easily be adapted but have an underlying approach that has been proven to work for me. Everyone will be different so be sure to obtain advice from professionals before applying any training plan that someone else is following.

Treading lightly on early season dirt hoping to build up the eccentric loading capacity without any consequential injury. It’s always a challenge!

The first run was on March 29- and I had not taken a single run since early November 2017. So it was imperative to ramp cautiously as is clear in the run distance progression shown in the training schedule (8 km – 26 km -66 km -72 km – 110 km) prior to the trail marathon on 5 May. Although I could easily support some significant miles cardiovascularly, it just takes time on the trail to get the musculo-skeletal system “hardened.”

Elevation profile for the trail marathon race on 5 May. Not much flat and some good extended climbing- basically my wheelhouse. Care will be taken on the downs as I will not have sufficient time to truly “harden” the systems that will be eccentrically taxed. The last 7 miles are all downhill so it will be imperative to support a good pace throughout this final section. Total elevation gain = 900 m (3000 feet).

Through April, a steadily increasing progression of distance/time, vertical ascension, and level of effort are planned. However, due to the short time for preparation (5-6 weeks), no interval sessions are incorporated prior to the first race. This is for two reasons: first, there is risk of injury and second, I am carrying significant fitness, both aerobic and high-end, from the just finished ski season. Although intervals might allow for more comfort during the race, they will not make any substantial difference in my ability to perform. Rather, holding the muscles, tendons, and bones together will be the primary determinant of performance.

Last week of March 2018:

April:

and May:

As can be seen, there is a slight break the week after the trail marathon and then a quick ramp up to two weeks of max levels of time and distance. This is followed by a “taper” week leading up to the second race on 2 June. I have also brought back intervals into this training period in the form of two-a-week sessions where one is a LT workout and the other is a VO2max workout. Hopefully I will be fully conditioned for the additional stress that these workouts will place on my body. Getting back to some intensity will be important in being able to properly perform on the major climb in the 35 km race.

Specifically, the 35 km mountain trail race has a very long, continuous climb with some significant steep sections and similarly steep downhills. It also has a couple of “kickers” in the last 10 km. I have done the 60 km version of this race, the last 35 km of which is the 35 km race. So, having run the route I know what to expect and should be able to get the pacing right. But I will note that the “kickers” are much more difficult than they look from the profile.

Elevation profile for 35 km mountain trail race. One significant and long climb followed by a couple of “kickers” that turn out to be more difficult than they look. The first climb starts out at 7% average grade, mellows to 3.5% and then goes to 10% to the top. The first of the “kickers” is 13% followed by the second one at about 8%.  Total climb = 1400 m (4500 feet).

The third race is a 25 km mountain trail race that has one long, continuous climb and then one long, continuous downhill. I have raced this in the past and hope to improve on my time. The last time I raced it I had quite a bit left at the finish and realized that I did not push the uphill hard enough. Not this year!

Elevation profile for 25 km mountain trail race. One long, continuous climb followed one long, continuous downhill. Looking to improve on my time at this race. The climb is a steady 10% grade with a few steeper parts up to about 15%. Total climb = 750 m (2500 feet).

The training period leading up to this race will have a short rest period followed by about 10 days of max training including two interval sessions (one LT one VO2max) and then a 3 day “taper”. Given the shorter length of this race (about 2h at race pace) a shorter “taper” should be fine.

So that’s the progression and, hopefully a successful one that I will be able to apply going forward. Results will be the determinant on that.

There will be some very easy running for the last two weeks of June and then begins the mountain adventures! Perhaps we will see you out on the trails if you are in the mountain west!

Best in training to all.