Article by Sam Winebaum and Jeff Valliere
La Sportiva Unika ($199)
The La Sportiva Unika is aptly named. This is one unique shoe! It packs an innovative soft, forgiving yet quite stable Infinitoo polyurethane foam (PU) midsole, an elaborate sock like upper supported by an outer harness with a bulbous toe protector, and one of the grippiest outsoles we have ever tested. It is also unique as according to La Sportiva it is the first trail shoe manufactured in Europe, Romania to be specific.
The relatively heavy 12.2 oz /347 g Unika is a puzzler. Is it a trail runner, a fast packer, a through hiking shoe, or the ideal slow terrain Ultra shoe for the masses? Jeff and I tested on a variety of terrain including fast technical runs above Boulder, mellow road and trail on the Seacoast of New Hampshire and took them for a two day hike on the never ending steeps and boulders of the Northern Presidentials of New Hampshire. Read on for our test conclusions.
Weight: 12.2 oz/347 g (US M9, EU 42)
Sample Weight: 12.2 oz/347 g (US M9, EU 42)
Stack Height: 31mm heel /23 mm forefoot, 8 mm drop
$199. Available August 2018
First Impressions and Fit
Sam: I was sent a US 9 EU 42 sample to test. I am usually an 8.5. The fit was spot on with the heavier socks I usually wear in trail shoes or light hikers.The overall fit is quite relaxed yet secure. Essentially the upper is a one piece thin mesh sock with the harness and its lacing and midsole side walls providing easy to dial in support. So this sure feels like it is an upper designed for long run and hike comfort, swelling and higher volume feet.
The front of the shoe has an unusual and I would say “unique” design, at the same time quite spacious with no pressure anywhere for me,adequately held, and very protective from the front, not so much from the sides back of the bumpers.
The lace up is “sticky” and really a harness in that the each lace loop connected to the straps running to the midsole is relatively broad and flat with the laces through the straps sitting further down than normal yet without any undue pressure. I have only rarely had to re tie and even when loosened the upper security is still surprisingly good for any moderate pace running or speed hiking. I think this is a tribute to not only the lacing system but the fact the foot sits half an inch below the yellow apparent midsole walls. More on that feature later.
Jeff: The production of the Unika has been delayed since sometime in January, so my curiosity continually built as the year went along and I had high hopes for the Unika, good things come to those who wait! First impressions - the shoe looks striking and modern, classic La Sportiva with an all mountain look. Tread is surprisingly minimal, but feels sticky. Sliding (working) my foot in for the first time was a bit of a challenge and I was struck by the thin/flexible forefoot, high feeling heel, thin upper over the forefoot and weight (13oz. In my US size 10). I am typically a size 10 in all La Sportiva shoes (aside from the Gore Tex winter shoes, where I size up to 10.5 because I wear thicker socks and they also seem to fit a touch more snug with the Gore membrane). As expected, size 10 in the Unika fit me perfectly, as it is consistent with other size 10s.
As Sam mentions above, the lacing is “sticky”, meaning you really have to loosen them and deliberately maneuver your foot into the shoe. It is a bit of a process and definitely not a shoe to slip into for dog walking or taking out the trash. Once laced, the heel and upper around the midfoot feel quite secure and the forefoot feels accommodatingly snug, meaning no excess volume or material, but enough mesh stretch to accomodate larger feet and foot swell. Additionally, the toe box is a bit squared off and not as narrow or tapered as many shoes or other La Sportivas.
La Sportiva describes the upper as having its Lace-Up Harness system which "Structurally integrates the uppers to the midsole distributing the tension evenly."
La Sportiva describes the upper as having its Lace-Up Harness system which "Structurally integrates the uppers to the midsole distributing the tension evenly."
Sam: While not really a part of the upper we have to start with the unique front of this shoe. The front yellow piece is a thick and broad across the front and only slightly pliable hard plastic piece. It is backed on either side by wrap up pieces of the outsole. The toe box is extremely comfortable and because of its wide front bumper and the stretchy thin mesh quite broad in fit with no pressure points. The upper flexes upfront very well with the shoe.
Behind the front protection we have a thin, dense and extremely pliable mesh, and due to its thinness, slightly stretchy “sock”. The one piece mesh sock runs from the toe all the way through the rest of the shoe to the heel counter. A thin overlay runs over the toes back of the bumper and along the sides just above the side walls for we assume some additional durability and structure.
The rest of the upper fit is surprisingly secure for essentially a sock like upper with thin external leatherettes pieces tied to the laces. The harness is asymmetrical with four lace loops on the lateral side and three on the medial side,The laces run furtherover the foot than in a conventional shoe as the external straps sit low. Despite the long travel of the laces over the foot I found no lace bite ever with this shoe even cinched tight.
The laces can be tucked into a side garage.
Unika has a incredibly elaborate mid foot wrap construction and given the black colors difficult to illustrate so I will try to describe. The outer part of the tongue is the same mesh piece as the rest of the upper on the lateral side. It has a dense padding backing it and with no gap in padding all the way almost but not quite to the midsole on the lateral side where the mesh continues to the midsole. Down low just behind the lace up on the lateral side the tongues stitched to the lower heel collar mesh. On the medial side we have a essentially the upper mesh on the outside of the tongue with the padded tongue essentially the upper. It does not have an outer mesh piece connecting to the midsole as the lateral side has or the diagonal rear stitching.
The support picture from the wrapping tongue seems opposite from the somewhat similar tongue construction Mutant (RTR review) where an additional tongue wrap layer is on the medial side. I am not sure why La Sportiva built the upper support this way as typically the medial side requires more support but it seems to work. I can speculate that they wanted to accentuate the flexibility up front for climbing toe off, and the Unika climbs very well and smoothly, All of this said it seems to support just fine although far better at slow or hiking paces than for hard fast and especially downhill running where the Mutant shines and which does not appear to be the best use of this heavier cruiser.
The support picture changes towards the heel with the collar clearly higher on the medial side. It seems the design focuses on beefing up the rear medial support more than midfoot.
|La Sportiva Unika Medial Side Heel|
|La Sportiva Unika Lateral Side Heel|
There are broader, higher more extensive harness pieces on medial side than the lateral side with, in a clever move the free floating rear part of the harness wrapping high on the heel to pull the top of the ankle harness forward towards the lacing. There is even an additional lace loop (see photo above) right on the sock collar on the medial side to really draw the medial side in.
The rear of the sock surrounding the achilles and to the sides has a dense and comfortable rectangle of padding,
The Unika has a hard plastic heel counter made up of two side wings with a notched soft achilles area which starts above the black notched area below the logo in the photo above.
In another twist, and following the sock like fit motif, the foot bed is integrated and non removable. It appears it isn’t even a conventional glued in foot bed, just a layer of soft footbed top material. As we move below to the midsole it also feels that there is no conventional firm “board” below, the foot sitting directly with liner above on the plenty soft PU midsole.
I tested Unika by wading through a stream above the ankles and continuing my hike. The Unika drained very fast and dried moderately fast with most of the moisture gone rapidly but some lingering. This is likely due to the fact that while the mesh sock is very thin it is also very dense. I found in very warm humid conditions that the shoe was quite warm. Absolutely no trail debris came through in our two days of hiking but this was not western dust and sand. Given the one piece front to back dense thin upper we expect little dust infiltration.
This is one elaborate, heavily engineered upper, probably the most elaborate I have ever seen on a trail shoe.
Jeff: While I am impressed by the level workmanship, technology and comfort of the upper of the Unika, I found that the stretchy material, while a benefit when it comes to comfort on more moderate terrain, it is a bit of a liability on technical terrain, particularly steep technical downhill and especially if off camber.
On one particular run, where my family gave me one hour to run up/down a 13,000 foot peak here in Colorado, I took off cross country, beelining it for the summit in the Unika. Though somewhat heavy (13 oz. in my US men’s size 10) and not particularly responsive, the Unika performed very well heading straight up the fall line on steep grass, dirt and talus.
The hurried descent however, with no trail and barrelling down 20-30% gradients was a bit dicey and strained the Unika upper to its limits, with the front of my foot stretching out of the thin material on every steep and/or sideways step. I never rolled an ankle, as the movement was somewhat predictable, but my foot was all over the place. I finished off the run (moving fast to sneak in under my family imposed 1 hour time limit) over off camber tussocky ground, which admittedly would have had me on alert in a proper Fell shoe, but was downright iffy in the Unika.
Outside of steep, fast, technical, off camber descents (or combinations), I did appreciate the comfort of the Unika upper and found it generally sufficient and secure for more casual running on moderate terrain.
The protection of the upper, or lack thereof is a concern for me, specifically in the forefoot. The toe guard is adequate, but from the back edge of the toe guard all the way to the first laces, the thin and stretchy upper offers absolutely no protection, leaving the front of the foot feeling a bit exposed and vulnerable, particularly in talus and scree. Because it is a La Sportiva, I instinctively want to take this shoe on rough, all mountain jaunts, but perhaps the Unika is just not quite meant for that.
Does the upper work?
I would say not for every condition and pace such as pushing hard downhill but yes indeed for the intended purpose of long slogs at slower paces. Two full days of incredibly rocky slow going over boulders and zero issues beyond one jamming of the foot into a crevice just behind the bumper at the met heads, that really hurt!
Will the upper last?
I am very impressed how little wear the upper experienced from two days of hiking over highly abrasive bounders and over 5000 feet of vertical. While at the interface of upper and outsole I do have some delamination of one the black outsole side bumper pieces. I distinctly recall jamming my foot sideways into a crevice and pulling it out rapidly which may have caused the damage. A touch of Super Glue should put it back in place.
The midsole is entirely made of a single slab of Infinitoo polyurethane (PU). PU is said to be more compression resistant, resilient and consistent during the day’s efforts and over time than EVA blends. PU is currently also found in the Brooks Levitate road shoe and as a front insert in the Salomon S/Lab Ultra.
This is a softer midsole than most trail shoes and while heavier and less springy and dynamic the Unika reminds of the Altra Lone Peak 4 in its feel. The feel is dense, somewhat pneumatic and squishy with a measured consistent energy return and bounce, is very well cushioned and relatively stable, at least at slower paces, and of course helped along by the upper tricks and the outsole. The midsole conforms to terrain as it compresses, I think joining the outsole to provide the outstanding grip noted on larger obstacles.
Sure looks like a massive stack, even more than the listed 31mm heel/ 23 mm forefoot. Welll there is more than midsole to the yellow above. From the heel to last lace up the first half or so inch underneath the yellow coating is actually a fairly hard but still somewhat pliable plastic side wall. Further forward it is a pliable softer outer material. The yellow wear resistant coating or skin is called Rock-Guard and is likely TPU. I have have zero damage to the side walls after two days of abrasive boulders. The skin also likely serves to keep the PU foam from deflecting outwards on compression and then helping the foam “snap” back. The skin extends underneath, above the outsole, for a touch of rock protection. The firm side walls to the back serve to seat and stabilize the foot about a half inch down while protecting the sock upper below. Up front on the sides, as it is pliable, the coating does not get in the way of flexibility but provides less side impact protection as I found out. This said one sits quite high anyway and the front and side bumper protection is outstanding so hits there are very occasional. Only once in two arduous days for me but to note.
The purpose of the four red hard plastic pieces, the Stability Lugs on the lateral side, none are present on the medial side where one might expect them at the heel or midfoot, are somewhat unclear to me. In addition to the called out stability maybe ankle roll protection and if so I never came close rolling despite the stack. Maybe they also encourage the foot to move medially to toe off?
Is the additional weight of PU vs EVA worth it? Depends on the use. For multiple long days on the trail and time on feet such as a through hike, trek, or Ultra lasting beyond 24-30 hours at slower paces I think clearly yes as I had zero soreness after 2 days of very steep boulder hiking. Otherwise for daily shorter trail runs not so much in my view.
Jeff: The midsole was a mixed bag for me. When first putting on the Unika, I was struck by the differential between the heel and the forefoot. While only an 8mm drop, it feels like more to me and I think that is somewhat exacerbated by the upper as well as the very distinct flex point, feeling as though the back two thirds of the shoe is a solid, protective long distance mountain running shoe and the front third is a thin, dainty slipper (reminiscent of the old Nike Aqua Socks I used for water sports back in the early 90’s). The Unika is ideal for heel strikers and the PU does a great job absorbing hard hits upon heel strike or even midfoot strike, but does not promote or accomodate forefoot landings. Transition and overall feel is very smooth, but not the least bit responsive or inspiring of speed (some of this also has to do with the overall weight of the shoe as well). I think for long slower distances and especially over the life of the shoe, the PU will perform and hold up very well.
Outsole and Rock Protection
Sam: The outsole is fantastic in its sure foot grip on rock and smoother terrain. It is La Sportiva’s FriXion XF 2.0 rubber called out as super grippy and lightweight. I was clambering on steep boulders and slabs with confidence, something unusual for me.
The full coverage especially at the heel and as a segment at mid foot wrapping up under the arch also likely contributes to stabilizing the softer foam above while the many many angles contribute to grip. The yellow seen through the lugs is the Rock Guard skin or coating. It is as described above a pliable thick coating and not a plate.
The higher and denser coverage around the rim also stabilize the ride while the full coverage at the toe is for wear and to provide some rock protection there. I noted more protection at the very front than the similar very easy front flexing Mutant.
All of this said there is a rub in terms of rock protection up front under the ball of the foot.. There is none beyond what is provided by the outsole and as said before the midsole is softer than the usual trail shoe, especially those that do not include a rock plate. While the midsole and the Rock-Guard skin provided adequate protection in most circumstances when the foot landed flat and square with a decent amount of landing surface, landing on the occasional very pointy rock was no fun in this shoe, and on the technical trails I tested I was mostly hiking so lower forces applied than running and landing on the same rock. So again we see an element of the design focused not on high performance speed running but long run and hiking comfort.
Jeff: The outsole is quite impressive, providing supreme grip on wet/dry rock, slabs, dirt trails, etc… Even for such low profile lugs, I was also quite impressed as to how well it stuck to steep, loose terrain, biting into steep chossy and scruffy hillsides where I was certain it would give out. But, the only catch is that the upper is unable to truly hold up to the forces that might be put on a shoe where one might be utilizing its grip to the fullest. If the upper held more like the Mutant, or even the Akasha or Lycan, I would feel nearly invincible over all but the most loose terrain.
The Unika also scrambles/climbs quite well, with the sticky rubber and low profile lugs for maximum contact and flexibility, the Unika feels somewhat like an approach shoe.
Forefoot protection, while good on your average dirt trail, is too thin for my liking on sharp rocky trails, talus fields and rock hopping. If you land on a flat hard surface, it is OK, but if any of the rocks are jutting, you definitely feel them.
Performance and Conclusions
Sam: The highly engineered, elaborate Unika, manufactured in Europe, introduces several new concepts, most notably: the Infinitoo PU midsole for a softer comfortable ride, compression resistance and longevity, the unusual front bumper, an entirely sock like upper backed by a harness and a fabulous new outsole design. The sum is a shoe heavier than most I would consider but a very comfortable one top to bottom, it is not a particularly agile or fun shoe taken fast downhill or on run fast on moderate terrain due to a combination of its weight and softness. This said the comfort top to bottom is outstanding. This is a shoe designed for long, long time on feet or more technical steeps taken very moderately.
My running on my in town combination of trails and roads were quite ponderous and labored. OK it was in the mid 80’s and humid but it was hard to get the Unika to move given of its weight and softness. Skeptical of the softness and support, I was delighted by their performance on the incredibly rocky White Mountains trails. Mind you this was all at hiking pace but support and grip were outstanding. Legs fresh and ready to go the next day despite over 5000 feet of vertical.
My conclusion is that the Unika is likely best suited to long distance through and multi day hiking such as on the AT or PCT, slower paced runs and hikes where bombing the downhills is not in cards, but rough,very steep vertical terrain taken at a hiking pace with a need for outstanding grip may be. Of course, over smoother terrain the miles will go by most comfortably at slow all day paces. From an Ultra racing standpoint, and not having run it but having trekked it twice at 17 miles per day averages, the Unika could a great choice and may be La Sportiva’s option for mid to back of the pack UTMB runners. The Unika comes at a hefty price of $199 but the craftsmanship, detailing, and execution is superb for the right run or hike purpose.
Jeff: Sam sums it up very well above and I concur with all of his points, but even in agreeing that this would be a good long day/multi day shoe at slower paces, I am still a bit perplexed and am still somewhat trying to make sense of the Unika. Though I am impressed by the high quality, elaborate engineering and craftsmanship, the shoe is heavy, somewhat hot, lacks forefoot protection top and bottom and has a very slow and uninspiring feel to it. Though traction is very impressive, the limits of the outsole is somewhat restricted by the stretch and insecure upper when pushed. I wanted to like this shoe more, but outside of testing, I don’t really feel inclined to grab it off of my shelf for anything outside of casual hiking. I think the Unika is an interesting advancement in technology, a futuristic prototype, but is not quite there yet and can benefit from a few improvements like dropping the weight, securing the upper, adding some protection and making it a bit more responsive.
Jeff’s Score: 7 /10
- 1 for weight/overly engineered
-.5 for lack of protection in forefoot, both top and bottom
-.5 for overly stretchy and insecure upper
- .5 for lack of response/flat/dead feel
- .5 for price. $199, ouch. Worth it for the quality and uniqueness perhaps, if easily within your budget and you can find a specific use for it.
-2 for weight and somewhat ponderous overly soft ride on smoother faster terrain which limits its utility to long slower runs and hiking. Why not a dual layer approach of Infinitoo under foot for comfort and more conventional EVA towards the ground for weight reduction and stability?
-0.5 for price, but you do get an European made work of the shoe maker’s art packed with tech, features and outstanding comfort which, if it serves your specific needs, may be worth it.
Skechers Performance GO Run Max Trail 5 (RTR review)
Jeff: Skechers is WAY lighter, extremely fast and springy feeling, better for running fast and even though a stretchy upper, better feel under most circumstances and much more affordable. Treadwear and overall grip though is inferior to the Unika.
Sam: When Jeff says WAY lighter he means it, 2.2 oz lighter for a shoe with yet more stack and a far more dynamic fast ride on all moderate surfaces. The Skechers upper is very stretchy and not as supportive, the lugs very aggressive but not as versatile. I would never dream of taking Max hiking where I would take Unika but would instantly reach for it over Unika where the runs mix smoother trails with some roads.
La Sportiva Mutant (RTR review)
Jeff: Mutant is lighter, less expensive with much better foothold, but the vice like grip can feel confining after a few hours and cushion/protection is not as good as Unika.
Sam: Jeff nailed it. I found the front protection while on a similar flex fatiguing in the Mutant whereas in the softer PU Unika, as long as one doesn’t hit sharp pointy rocks hard excellent and the all day foot comfort superior to Mutant.
Salomon Sense Pro Max (RTR review)
Jeff: Traction is not as good, but the upper is more secure, yet still accommodating and I like the cushioning better, not fast, but feels more “normal”.
Sam: I agree with Jeff on traction but as far as the upper for long moderate pace running I would pick the Unika’s upper. The Max is quite stiff and very protective and well cushioned and as Jeff says a more normal riding shoe for running. If fast hiking is the focus clear win for the Unika for me.
Hoka Speedgoat 2 (RTR review)
Jeff: Less money, lighter, more responsive with better cushion, but compacts significantly over time where the PU of Unika will last longer. Unika has better traction and fit, as the SG2 is too tapered in the toebox for many.
Hoka EVO Mafate (RTR review)
Jeff: So far my favorite shoe of the year, the EVO Mafate is light years better for long distances than anything I have tried so far. Expensive at $170, but still $20 less than Unika, the EVO Mafate is feathery light feeling, snappy and responsive with good tread, somewhat accommodating fit, though comparatively secure upper, the EVO Mafate is ideal for going fast on uphills, very fast on all but the most technical downhills (but still good on technical trails) and also feels good at any pace slower than Walmsley speed, meaning everything.
Sam: I’m with Jeff on Mafate, 100%, for any kind of running at any pace on any surface although for long distance hiking I would pick the Unika due to its softer midsole and and more versatile outsole. The EVO’s low water absorption rapid drying very breathable upper vs. the Unika easier and more accomodating fit is a toss up.
Saucony Peregrine 8 (RTR review)
Jeff: Though no longer a lightweight at 11 oz, the Peregrine 8 is lighter, has a more secure upper, knobbier outsole, costs less, has great cushion, and better underfoot protection.
Altra Lone Peak 4.0 (RTR review)
Sam: The Lone Peak is the #1 choice of long distance hikers on the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails due to its wide toe box and soft cushion. Sound familiar? Well Unika can play that game to
and with its long lasting PU midsole, accommodating stretch mesh and rugged Frixion XF outsole might challenge the Lone Peak. Durability, as with the Lone Peak ,is to be determined. The rub for Unika, the Lone Peak is lighter by 1.6 oz and is also a far more versatile trail run shoe.
Reviewer BiosJeff Valliere is a former pro cyclist who now runs and climbs the mountains of Colorado. He has been top 5 Masters, top 25 overall, at the Pike's Peak Marathon several times, finishing 2d Masters in 2015. Jeff loves vertical accumulating more than 500,000 vertical feet per year, has climbed all the Colorado 14's and 200 of the 13's and has held FKT on several.
Sam Winebaum is the Editor and Founder of RoadTrailRun. He has been running and shoe geeking for 45 years. As he turned 60 in 2017 he was thrilled to clock a 1:35.24 half and as he turned 61 a 3:40 marathon to qualify for Boston. Sam runs his roads and trails in coastal New Hampshire and Park City, Utah.
Photo Credits: Jeff Valliere and Sam Winebaum
The product reviewed in this article were provided at no cost. The opinions herein are entirely the authors'.Comments Questions Welcome Below!
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