Saturday, April 21, 2018

Salomon S/Lab Ultra Full Review: Race Ready Fit for Long, Hard Hauls

by Jeff Valliere and Sam Winebaum

Salomon S/Lab Ultra

Introduction/Initial Impressions:  

Jeff: I was not entirely sure what to expect with the S/Lab Ultra. Version 1 the S/Lab Sense Ultra was a big hit for me, as it was for many others given how quickly it sold out and became Salomon’s #1 selling S/Lab running shoe of all time  (despite the premium $180 price tag). For my use and preferences, I found the 1st version to be fast, light, stable, secure, with excellent grip and reasonable cushion/protection, especially when compared to previous Salomon S Lab shoes.  It was somewhat revolutionary. The new Ultra was completely reworked and may as well have also had a different model name as it has a different last, different outsole, different upper and an ounce heavier per shoe. I couldn’t help but wonder why Salomon so drastically overhauled a shoe that was so near perfection for so many.
My initial impressions however were quite positive.  Even though heavier, they still feel lighter than I imagined, fit was not as narrow as rumored and I liked the color scheme of red/purple much more than I anticipated.

Sam: I found the original S/Lab Sense Ultra to have one of the most comfortable uppers of any trail shoe or even road shoe I have run recently. I found the first S/Lab Sense Ultra overall to be excellent on moderate terrain but quite soft despite its dual density middles. Its forefoot protection was on the light side and its flexibility had me more leery on more technical terrain than in the XA Elevate or Sense Ride. 

So I was excited to see the new beefier upper of the Ultra and intrigued by its new Energy Save forefoot insert. The shoe was designed for the requirements of Francois D'Haene, multiple time UTMB winner including 2017. It is clearly focused on, and intended to provide protection and performance during long hard slogs in rough terrain, something the first Ultra was bit light for. I was somewhat taken aback by the added weight (going from 9.7 oz/275 g to a substantial 10.7 oz/303 g) and seemingly much narrower fit and especially toe box width. As Jeff said they are not as narrow as they seem. The fit overall is excellent, secure and comfortable, and pressure free the very front along side the tips of my pinky toes and big toes where it is lower and narrower feeling than recent Salomon trail shoes such as the Sense Ultra, XA Elevate, and Sense Ride.

Weight : 10.7 oz/303 g US M9
Stack Height: 26mm heel/ 18mm forefoot, 8 mm drop
$180. Available now. The S/Lab Sense Ultra is also still available, see below.


Jeff: The S/Lab Ultra fits me true to size and I found sizing to be in line with just about all of the other Salomon shoes I have run in.  The toe box is noticeably more tapered than the previous version, but less so than I imagined. For my foot (narrow/low volume) and preference (snug and secure for pushing technical terrain),the first Ultra fits better due to it’s slightly more rounded shape, which has a race fit and is secure, yet has just enough wiggle room to not feel constricting.

Version 1 left, version 2 right. Version 1 fits as though it were custom made for my foot, where version 2, though good, feels not quite perfect when wearing them side by side.

Jeff: The Ultra 2 has a precise, race fit, is secure, comfortable and though I had no issues with blistering or discomfort while running (as much as 4.5 hours), I did notice some slight pain in my pinky toenails after my runs.  I will admit that my pinky toenails are a bit mangled and sensitive, but to be fair, I rarely, if ever experience this post run sensitivity with any other shoes, all used under like circumstances. I fear that this tapered toe box could be a limiting factor for those with even slightly wider feet and for those who prefer or insist on a bit more wiggle room. The mesh upper is flexible, breathable and the toe bumper has been beefed up a little, providing ample protection from accidental rock kicks.

Sam: I concur with Jeff on the overall fit which is superb and also concur that the taper of the toe box especially on the pinky toe side for me is an issue.  I think it is due to the combination of the narrowness and the low rubber like toe bumper. Unlike any other trail shoe I have run recently including race fit shoes such as the New Balance Summit Unknown and Summit Trail, I feel some pressure there even on shorter runs on more moderate terrain. It is also more tapered than other recent Salomon trail shoes such as XA Elevate, Sense Ride, and S/Lab Sense Ultra where I had plenty of room.
Center Top Clockwise: S/Lab Ultra, Sense Ride, S/Lab Sense Ultra, XA Elevate
Moving beyond the front toe box issue the rest of the upper is superb. The mesh is very fine and soft and is extensively covered with a rubbery very pliable overlay given the shoe a pliable very foot conforming fit. Even the external straps are of an only slightly stiffer material but blend in to the rest of the fit brilliantly for me.

The S/Lab Ultra was initially designed for multi time UTMB winner Francois d'Haene's requirements for that race. S/Lab products are first and foremost designed around the requirements, and with input from Salomon's top 20 athletes  I had the pleasure of visiting the Salomon Annecy Design Center this year (RTR article here) and I saw his very narrow foot's custom last which clearly also influenced the design. I even saw older D'Haene prototypes of the Sense Ultra 1 with added straps, clearly an attempt to give his narrow foot more support in that roomier shoe. Here the straps are incorporated into a new upper design.

Jeff: The most notable addition to the upper are the two Sensi Fit straps that envelop the foot on both the lateral and medial sides.  These straps, combined with the EndoFit bootie style design, do a wonderful job of keeping the foot in place, but I also find that the Ultra 1 and XA Elevate to secure my foot exceptionally well with their more pared down, streamlined overlays and innerlays.  Though the new Sensi Fit straps work quite well, I question whether or not they provide enough added benefit to justify the added weight. I also find that I notice a bit of tightness where my foot bends and interacts with the upper straps. I don't have any pain or discomfort, but am aware of it being there.

Jeff: The quicklace system has been revamped as well, with the laces being a bit more integrated with the “tongue” and the lace garage being accessed from the top. Snugging the laces takes a little more work and finesse, but I am able to achieve a uniform, snug fit on the first try without ever having to adjust later on the run.  Tucking the excess cord and slider into the top facing garage is a little easier and more secure than the traditional style.

Sam: I really like the combination of the new top loading lace garage and the way the quicklaces tied into the SensiFit straps distribute pressure, further out board than only at lace holes, while the straps secure the foot without needing to over tighten. I often struggle with getting the right quicklace pressure in Salomon and particularly did in the S/Lab Sense Ultra 1 where it always seemed I needed a lot of somewhat painful pressure to secure the foot. Here lace up has been easy, comfortable and with no during run adjustments to speak of. The dense, pliable upper and straps providing structure and stand off for the lacing while providing support. The lace garage is more convenient and allows me to place the plastic cinch higher and above the lacing itself so more comfortable as I do not feel the cinch piece.

Jeff: The heel collar is very minimally padded, but does not really need to be given the flexibility and lack of a plastic heel cup.  Comfort is excellent and heel hold is very good.  The though the heel counter is light, flexible and minimal, it offers excellent comfort, protection and stability.

Sam: I concur with Jeff on the ankle and heel collars. I was skeptical that the removal of the plastic heel cup would stabilize the foot enough at the rear but it does! I think here again the rear SensiFit strap and lacing system play a big role by drawing the foot forward while wrapping almost to the heel with the broad strap. Brilliant stuff! I wonder if the EndoFit bootie is really even needed here.

Jeff:  The tongue (Endofit bootie) is moderately padded and protects the foot well from the laces.  The Endofit has a nice comfortable and secure wrap which aids in control and foothold, especially in difficult terrain.


Sam: The Energy Cell+ midsole with new Energy Save PU front insert is firmer especially up front and more protective than in the first Ultra making the S/Lab Ultra actually more suitable for trail running than I found the Ultra 1 which for me ended up more of a road trail hybrid and a soft on. While firmer upfront, the new Energy Save PU insert in the mix is designed to insure consistent feel and resiliency from mile one to mile one hundred whereas EVA tend to "fatigue" changing feel over repeated strikes during a run. Salomon showed us the internal construction of the S/Lab Ultra and Francois D'Haene's race shoes which have a smaller insert which does not extend as far back, just covering the forefoot.

S/Lab Ultra Views looking up from the bottom without outsole.
The PU EnergySave insert below sits in a cavity below the ProFeel Film rock plate shown above

Sam: I found Energy Save served a dual purpose as it both dampened shock and conformed, with protection, to trail obstacles. It also seems to lead, along with a decent forward and easy flex to very good steep climbing abilities, superior to say the XA Elevate with its stiffer more rocker design. The insert provides a nice pneumatic effect of compression then measured return, similar to the Brooks Levitate which has an entire midsole made of PU. I can well see its positive effect on maintaining the feet during long ultras. 

On the flip side, the forefoot feel also lacks pop and response on smoother surfaces, the weight also potentially contributing as they were more ponderous to run hard and fast than say the XA Elevate or Ultra 1. My Strava segments on my usual test loop showed a climbing PR and a slower road finish than the XA Elevate with its stiffer rocker type forefoot and snappier response. I do think the Ultra would benefit from a slightly more substantial ProFeel film plate to stiffen the forefoot and help provide some pop as it does in the XA Elevate. All of these elements a tradeoff between weight, protection and performance for long steep hauls with as a resulting somewhat missing sense of livelier run fun that its cousins have for me.

Jeff: The dual density compressed EVA Energy Cell+ midsole offers a good balance of cushioned comfort and reasonable response.  On runs that were 4+ hours on rocky terrain, I feel that the cushioning and protection is plenty adequate. The Energy Save does a fine job at dampening shock and giving a good combination of ground feel and protection. I found response to be moderate, enough that when you are having a great day, you might hardly notice, but if you are dragging a bit, the S/Lab Ultra does not add a lot of pop to your step. I did put in some road miles and was impressed though at how well it handled pavement with some speed injected in with adequate cushion and a smooth ride. Not at all slappy like some of the thinner soled models with less cushion.

Jeff: Salomon’s Premium Wet Traction Contagrip is among the finest outsoles on the market and the S Lab Ultra provides excellent traction under most dry conditions, but noticed that grip in the wet, especially on wet rock is not quite up to par with the previous version of this shoe, or with the XA Elevate.  Additionally, the lugs have been removed from the middle of the outsole underfoot, creating a bit of a traction weakness depending on terrain (rocks, roots, off trail). The red compound seems to be a slightly harder rubber compound and does not adhere as well to hard surfaces and thus the lesser grip on wet rock especially. That said, though traction is not quite as good as the first version, it is still very good in relation to the majority of the shoes on the market and will be more than sufficient for most people most of the time.

LEFT: S/Lab Ultra                        RIGHT S/Lab Sense Ultra
Sam: The red Premium Wet Traction Contagrip here appears firmer than the black flavor found in a mix on the Sense Ultra and all over the XA Elevate. I tend to prefer the softer black flavor for its somewhat better traction as Jeff says above but also for its touch of additional cushion and ability to handle roads without to much noise and firmness. The S/Lab Ultra was not as suitable for roads as the XA Elevate and to a lesser extent the Sense Ultra were for me. It was firmer and more ponderous to transition. And it not just roads as smoother hard packed dirt were also more pleasing in the other two. This is clearly a shoe for steep long hard miles and that is fine. I did some running in short stretches of mud and traction was excellent with no noticeable build up.

Sam: On occasion I caught small obstacles at the last rows of lugs (front and back) before the mid foot gap when I dragged my feet.

Performance and Recommendations:

Sam: The S/Lab Ultra was designed for long hard hauls with lots of vertical and for a legendary racer, Francois D'Haene. As such it meets its design goals and is a wonderful shoe. It fits the front of my foot just with some pressure up front so I not sure I would chance very long runs in them for this sole reason. Beyond the toe box issue, the fit is incredibly comfortable and secure, a smooth light touch that just works from the new SensiFit straps to the new reduced bite quicklace design. 

Under foot, the ride is steady, well protected, climbs and descends very well but lacks some lively response and fun on flatter terrain where it becomes somewhat ponderous. Am I feeling the weight of the shoe? The dampening of shock from the EnergySave? not as much bounce as the softer, lighter S/Lab Sense Ultra? The need for a bit more ProFeel stiffness up front. Likely all of the above. 

This said its purpose reflects its capabilities. So if your game is long and in rough terrain and it fits your foot it is a state of the art option. If you want to stick with the original S/Lab Sense Ultra it is still available at the links below and we assume elsewhere as well.

Sam's Score: 8.75/10
-0.25 for weight. Not sure where it is coming from exactly but getting this shoe closer to 10 oz. could enhance its versatility and liveliness.
-0.5 for tapered toe box. At the limits for me, likely to be an issue for some.
-0.5 for somewhat ponderous ride and performance on smoother terrain. 

Jeff: The comments above about the tapered toe box, perhaps overly engineered Sensi Fit straps, added weight and lesser traction in comparison to version 1 have merit, but mostly because I am comparing to version 1 which I found to have perfect fit, excellent traction and are light. That said, if this shoe fits your foot, I don't think you will be disappointed in the least. Aside from the post run toe nail sensitivity (which for me, lessened somewhat over time, perhaps because the shoe broke in some), I found fit to be very good, precise, secure and race ready.  
Photo Credit:  John "Homie" Prater

Jeff: The added protection in the forefoot helps to take the edge off in technical terrain, not just from the physical rock protection, but my forefoot and metatarsals seem to be less worked in rocky, technical terrain. As long as I was not on wet rock, I felt like I could push quite hard and with confidence on most terrain and they even did reasonably well on snow, slush and ice (though more Spring like conditions pictured below than hard bulletproof Winter ice).  

Though not the most responsive shoe out there, it has enough for a steady quick pace for long distances. The S/Lab Ultra does exceptionally well in regards to versatility, handling just about any mountainous trails and terrain, as well as performs quite well on more mellow terrain, some road and would do well door to trail without much compromise on either end, a great shoe to pack while travelling and you want to keep your options open. I am not sure the S/Lab Ultra is going to satisfy the entire legion of die hard fans of the first version, much of that will depend on fit.

Jeff's Score: 9.1/10
- .3 for weight. Tipping the scales at 11 1/4 oz., this is stretching the weight limit of a performance S/Lab shoe.
- .2 for change in rubber compound and removing lugs underfoot.
- .2 for tapering the forefoot. This may work well for Francois and even pretty well for me, but could be problematic for those who found version 1 to be perfect or on the slim side.
- .2 for feeling a bit more sluggish than expected from an S/Lab shoe.


Salomon S/Lab Ultra vs. S/Lab Sense Ultra (Version 1)(RTR Review here
Jeff: These are both great shoes, each with their pros/cons. The biggest factor will be fit, with version 2 being more narrow in the forefoot, which as I mentioned above, not really problematic for me, but will be for some. Version 1 fits me as if it were designed custom for my foot and I much prefer the fit, whereas version 2 is still very good, I feel as though my foot is adapting to it. Version 1 has slightly better traction, is lighter, more nimble, quick and responsive, though protection, mostly in the forefoot is better in version 2 and is slightly more supportive which would be better for longer distances.
Sam: I generally concur with Jeff but found Sense Ultra to run in a bit of a no man's land for me. Not quite supportive enough for rougher terrain, a bit soft and easy going for smoother trails fast running. The S/Lab Ultra takes a decisive big mountain run stand and I like that. My only issue is the tapered toe box. The Sense Ultra 1 is still available so runners can choose.

Salomon S/Lab Ultra vs. Salomon XA Elevate (RTR Review here) - The XA Elevate was my favorite shoe last year. The Elevate has slightly less cushion and is more firm, but also more protective, responsive, has a more accommodating fit, is about the same weight, is more comfortable, has better traction and cost $50 less. The only thing it lacks is the S/Lab logo.
Sam: The XA Elevate was also my favorite shoe of 2017 and is still so far 2018 but who knows what may come next. 

Salomon S/Lab Ultra vs. Salomon Sense Ride (RTR Review here
Jeff: I find these two shoes to perform fairly similar in regard to cushion, protection and response. The Sense Ride is a bit lighter and has a more accommodating fit, yet the Ultra has better foothold and security in rough terrain. You can also save $60 by going with the Sense Ride.
Sam: Despite the potential fit issues and price difference for more technical terrain and longer runs the S/Lab Ultra would be my pick despite Ride's welcome Vibe insert. I also found the very front flex area of the Ride more tiring than the S/Lab Ultra's.

Salomon S/Lab Ultra vs. Saucony Peregrine 8 (RTR review here) - Close in weight, the Sam:Peregrine 8 has a more accommodating fit, better traction overall, more cushion and is a little more responsive. The S/Lab Ultra however is a little more secure, stable and performance oriented and for sure more versatile for a wider range of terrain (road, dirt road, door to trail). The Peregrine 8 costs $60 less.

Salomon S/Lab Ultra vs. Hoka Torrent (RTR review)
Jeff: The Hoka Torrent is much lighter with better cushion, response, protective ground feel and secure, yet accommodating fit. The Torrent also excels in traction and costs $120. The Torrent thus far is a front runner for my shoe of the year, it will take a lot to top this.

Salomon S/Lab Ultra vs. Hoka EVO Mafate (RTR review)
Sam: At about the same weight, the EVO Mafate has a more accommodating toe box, considerably more cushion from its giant stack, is plenty stable and secure in rougher terrain and more fun to run and more responsive on smoother terrain and even roads. This said when the going gets rougher and steeper the Ultra takes over.

Jeff Valliere is a former pro cyclist and competitive masters trail runner with some top 5 masters results at the Pikes Peak Marathon, two wins at the Aspen Backcountry Half Marathon, and an 8:15 Rim to Rim to Rim.  He is also the father of 7 year old twin daughters who love to make fun of his obsession with shoes and will soon be outpacing him on the trails.  Jeff runs rough trails and off trail above Boulder, Colorado on a near daily basis and all over the highest peaks of the Colorado Rockies as time and conditions permit and has been testing and reviewing gear officially since 2005, but a critical aficionado of running, mountaineering and cycling gear since the mid 80's.

Sam Winebaum is the Editor and Founder of RoadTrailRun. He has been running trails and roads and  been run shoe and tech geeking for 45 years. As he turned 60 in 2017 he was thrilled to clock a 1:35.24 half as well as 2 days after his next birthday a 3:40 marathon.  He mixes his trail running between smooth and fast Utah terrain and rocky, rooty New Hampshire

The Ultra was provided at no cost. The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.
Photo Credit: Jeff Valliere
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Unknown said...

Great review. Will be interested in your comparison of this shoe to the soon to be released Ultra Pro,

Unknown said...

I’m curious about the “grading construction” Salomon mentions. It sounds like they’re increasing stack height as the shoe size increases - but do you know what the final production numbers are by size?

aaron said...

Jeff, how do you feel this compares with the Speedgoat 2?

kiwirevo said...

Hi, Can you compare the fit against the SLab Wings 8. I've been running in them but find them slightly tight across the top of forefoot. Would the Ultra be better? or should I just make the jump to the torrent?

Sam Winebaum said...

Kiwirevo, from memory on Wings. Ultra about the same maybe a bit roomier over the top of forefoot but narrower at sides of front for sure. Ultra Pro considerably roomier up front than either. Torrent for sure roomier all around yet also secure and lighter. Also look at XA Elevate. See reviews of all below Sam, Editor
Thanks for reading Road Trail Run! See our page with links 100’s of in depth shoe and gear reviews HERE. You can also follow RoadTrailRun on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram where we publish interesting run related content more frequently as well as links to our latest reviews. Shopping through links on articles help support RoadTrail Run and is much appreciated!

kiwirevo said...

Thanks Sam,

I'd thrown the Elevate & Sense Ride into my decision making too. but now I have too many to decide from and not all are available in my local market (Ultra Pro is currently impossible for me to get). I've got a few trail marathons coming up with a tough technical 74km ultra next year. I can try on the Elevate & Ride in my local market (may be able to find the Torrent) so will probably go with one of those for now and hope the Ultra Pro becomes available soon.

kiwirevo said...

Sam, another option I can consider is the SLab Sense 7s but I don't think it'll be enough shoe for my slow, 80kg self over 42-70km. What do you think (assuming cushioning in the 7 will be similar to the 6)

Sam Winebaum said...

Neither Jeff nor I ran the Sense 6 SG. We are just starting testing the Sense 7 SG and it is a spectacularly light shoe with a surprising amount of upper comfort, stability, underfoot protection and cushion in a quite minimal shoe. I weigh about 74 kg and would certainly run them on a not rocky course of up to 25K and maybe further if the terrain is moderate but would go with the Torrent, EVO Mafate, or Elevate with if rocky more technical the Elevate.
Sam, Editor