As the summer racing season shifts into gear, many of us may be lured by the charm of lighter weight, minimalist trail shoes with ideas of going after that big PR on a familiar course, chasing down a rival, or simply enjoying feeling the terrain under our feet after a long winter and spring. Or, if you’re like me, always trying to push the limits of how long I can run comfortably in the lightest, most minimal shoe possible. At times this has proved disastrous, and at other times merely frustrating when finishing up a 20-miler with beat up feet thinking to myself, “I thought for sure this would be enough shoe for me.” Certainly, those tantalizing Salomon videos released every few weeks do nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for lightweight trail shoes watching the international team bomb down technical downhills in these flashy little trail slippers. (Insert mental image of me leaping off a large boulder like Kilian, okay more like Richard Simmons, here.)
So, when I set out to review the Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra ($180) I deliberately reeled in my expectations and believed that once again I would find another trail shoe which worked very well up to the marathon distance, but would ultimately leave my feet and legs pretty trashed. What I found was an incredible example of functional minimalism for runners looking to train and race ultra distances.
This is absolute shoe art, folks. From the construction of the very thin and seamless Sensifit upper blending perfectly with a barely there rubber toecap. Open mesh, mostly visible on the front half of the shoe dries very quickly and allows a lot of air around the foot. The gusseted tongue, rather than being sewn into the upper by the eyelets of the shoe, is instead sewn down into the footbed, which effectively keeps rocks and debris out but also improves the fit of the shoe through the midfoot.
And what an incredible fit it is. After a frustrating initial fitting where I struggled to pull on the Sense Ultra, I savored the form-fit throughout the heel and midfoot. The fit throughout the midfoot is quite snug and will likely not work for runners with full-volume feet. The forefoot of the Sense Ultra is consistent with the original Sense and the Mantra; wide by Salomon standards, but not necessarily wide for the trail-shoe industry. I typically wore my thinnest socks with the Sense Ultra to simulate the barefoot feel and because midweight merino wool socks left me feeling constricted in this lower volume upper.
The same reliable Quicklace system with thin Kevlar laces is employed here with a small change. The lace garage is located from the top of the tongue rather than having to pull the tongue up and slip the slider underneath. This made it much easier to access for both putting on and removing the shoes and I’ve probably saved at least 45 seconds of my life. The fit of the Sense Ultra is one that I would recommend trying before buying. Personally, I’ve never experienced such a snug fit that gave me such a locked down feel on the trails.
Salomon increased the density (durometer) of the original S-Lab Sense EVA to provide more protection underfoot and increase durability. The result is a firm feel underfoot that feels absolutely heavenly on softer trails and just a bit too firm for my taste on hard trails or solid rock. When runners have asked me what the cushioning feels like, I’ve likened it to Adidas road racing flats, which have a firm feel which runners either love or feel is not forgiving enough. The positive aspects of this firmer feel is that the Sense Ultra climbs mountains like a beast, getting great purchase from the outsole and ground feel. It also provides a bit more stability than one would expect from such a lightweight shoe (7.8 ounces for my size 9.5 US). Furthermore, a 4mm heel drop increases that stable, low-to-the-ground feel.
My absolute favorite technology on the Sense Ultra is the Pro-feel Film rock plate which covers the forefoot and extends through the midfoot. Rock protection has never been this lightweight and protective, and I have yet to experience a rock poking through or any stone bruises. For a flexibility comparison, I can easily grab the heel and toe of the Sense Ultra and bend them back until they touch.
This may be the one area that I felt the Sense Ultra could use a little more work, and I’m sure some runners will disagree with me here. The Contagrip outsole pattern is effective at gaining purchase on dry ground, and it easily sheds dirt and mud. The Contagrip is made up of different densities of rubber to provide traction where it is most needed on a variety of surfaces. But what is gained in durability is lost in that it is too hard to be sticky, especially on wet surfaces. Recently on a run above treeline that involved a lot of stepping on boulders wet from snow melt, I repeatedly slipped on the wet granite. I experienced this same phenomenon when running over patches of snow, and I think the tradeoff for making the outsole of the Sense Ultra out of softer rubber would be that runners would complain about it wearing down prematurely. My pair of Sense Ultras, with approximately 180 miles on them, show absolutely no wear whatsoever. Durability is not a problem here.
Overall Impression and Performance
The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra is an inspiring shoe from both a design and performance standpoint. It is evident that Salomon put a ton of thought and trail testing into this shoe, and I can think of no better trail racing shoe on the market for those in the front of the pack gunning for the podium. For $180, you get everything one would expect from a state-of-the-art trail shoe and some beautiful aesthetics to match. In terms of performance, the Sense Ultra is the new benchmark for functional minimalism, offering enough protection through the Pro-Feel Film rockplate and cushioning to manage ultra distances. Don’t be fooled, only the lightest and most fleet-footed runner could don these kicks for 100 miles. I think they are an ideal 50k trail racing shoe and could be stretched up to 50 miles. One thing that won’t be a problem with these shoes is durability, and I have yet to leave any wear mark besides dirt and grime on the upper or outsole. I’m looking forward to trying to wear out these shoes and I’ll certainly post here when/if that happens.
If you’re looking for a very similar feel with a bit more cushioning and protection, with a bit less flexibility, check out my Salomon Sense Mantra ($120) review. I would love to see a Softground version of the Sense Ultra, similar to what Salomon did with the S-Lab XT 5, where softer EVA was used for harder terrain. However, if you’re looking for the absolute pinnacle in minimalist trail shoes, look no further.