Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 Review

Inov-8 has a history of making excellent shoes for a certain subset of runners. For me, they’ve been too narrow, too thin, too low drop, too minimal on the cushioning. I like moderate-plus cushioning with a semi-firm ride, decent rock-plate protection, excellent traction, a Birkenstock-style shape, and a 10mm drop—just call me Miss Free-Toes Tenderfoot. My distinctly non-graceful, mincing style of descending on steep, technical trail coupled with my tendency to catch my toe also tips my preference towards a nice toe bumper and a secure midfoot. I should probably just design my own shoes.

After reading a bit on the new shoes coming out this summer after the Outdoor Retailer show last winter, my interest certainly was piqued with what I read on the new Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 ($130) with a women’s-specific fit. The shoe comes in around 9.3oz (women’s size 8), offers an 8mm drop, “optimal cushioning” for long distances, and a flatter yet well-lugged outsole that still facilitates good proprioception or ground feel (per Inov-8’s website). I was excited to try out the shoe as I’d love to find a solid option between my Salomon Speedcross and its outstanding traction but less than fabulous pointy rock protection and my Pearl Izumi M2’s which have a great ride for non-technical trail but tend to irritate my posterior chain after more than three hours at the lower drop.

Upper

The upper (synthetic/TPU) is a soft mesh that blends breathability with keeping the gunk out fairly well on dusty, dry trails. The reinforced toe bumper extends into a rand that wraps entirely around the shoe for enhanced protection from sideways incursions with rocks and brush. I found this extremely helpful on many runs. There’s no sign of any wear along the upper-midsole junctions and no visible snags or punctures in the mesh or rand despite my best attempts to create some via rocks and pointy shrubbery. Two attachment points for the Inov-8 gaiter lie flush in the rand on the lateral and medial aspects of the shoe which is handy if you have their gaiter. The tongue is padded without being thick and is gusseted three quarters of the way back which keeps debris out nicely yet creates no pressure ridges or uncomfortable areas around the top of the foot. The standard flat laces are lengthy but stay tied well with the typical double knot. Overlays extend from the rand up to the lacing holes creating more stability through the upper and theoretically the ability to cinch down the shoe through the midfoot. This is the one area I think could be improved.

The new Race Ultra shape is stated to be the most natural for the foot with increased room for toes to spread out. I agree in that it’s the most roomy toe box and midfoot I’ve ever experienced in an Inov-8 shoe. It’s so roomy, in fact, that my I-wear-Chaco’s-every-day foot has too much room, and I have yet to figure out how to cinch up the midfoot in such a way that it doesn’t feel sloppy on off-camber technical trails. This also contributes to a feeling of lack of control on rockier trails because my foot and shoe aren’t working together. The arch is of low-medium height which might also contribute to my feeling of increased movement inside the shoe. The length of the shoe is true to my normal size and the heel cup fits well in terms of depth and firm yet comfortable support. Two other aspects of the upper to note—I found the Achilles notch atop the heel cup very comfortable, and I appreciated the low-profile webbing loop attached to the back for hooking my shoes to a pack during door-trail carpooling.

Inov-8 Race Ultra 190 photo 1

The Inov-8 Race Ultra 190 lateral upper.

Midsole

The midsole of the Race Ultra 290 is a single density injected EVA with the Meta-Shank III (third generation) Trail-Roc shank which the website describes as a five-finger polymer that aligns with each metatarsal for increased benefit from the “Windlass Effect” while retaining underfoot impact protection and flexibility. From the functional perspective, I found it to offer a semi-firm ride and ample protection for most of the Colorado trails I took them on while not feeling too stiff or over-built. The shoe has excellent torsional stiffness for a neutral shoe without being too stable or decreasing my feel for the trail. Overall, I think they should be a very durable shoe for as light as they feel while running.

Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 photo 2

The Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 medial upper.

Outsole

The outsole features the Tri-Endurance compound (Race Ultra Sole) which is made of a more durable version of the sticky rubber for which Inov-8 is known. The lower-profile lug pattern has forefoot lugs for improved climbing and reverse lugs for improved traction on descending. Three different colors (and densities) of materials are used on the bottom of the shoe. A red strip (most dense of the three colors) with Terradapter lugs is positioned at the heel to improve durability in the high-wear area for heel strikers. A blue strip is positioned around the outside of the bottom of the sole which feels the least dense of the three colors of compounds but enhances traction on off-camber rocks and technical terrain. It has the uphill and downhill lugs as appropriate. In the middle section of the entire outsole is the black, medium density compound with the uphill and downhill lugs. I think the lugs offer traction that is adequate for most conditions outside of Pacific Northwest winter mud or ice/slippery snow. They shed the mud I did get into well, but I didn’t have the opportunity to wallow too much in goop or wet clay. After 150-plus miles in these shoes on a variety of surfaces—dirt, roots, rock, technical uphills and downhills, sand, and a bit of water and mud—I don’t see significant wear to any of the colors or lugs which is fairly impressive.

Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 photo 3

The Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 outsole.

Overall Impressions

Despite my frustration with the inability for the shoe to truly become one with my foot, I still really like the shoe. It feels light and fast. The rock protection is excellent without sacrificing flexibility. It drains well yet has ample protection around the shoe for run-ins with pointy rocks, long grass seeds, and scrubby brush. I wore it in temperatures between 50 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit and had no issues with blisters or excessive foot sweating. After 150-plus sweaty miles plus a few creek crossings, the X-tatic Anti-microbial lining is still working well as these shoes can hang out inside the house by the door without garnering any excessive sniffs from the dog or any raised eyebrows from other family members. At this point, I can only wear the shoe up to about 15 miles of trail with moderate rocks/roots or 20 miles on non-technical trail. If the fit of the midfoot can be improved by Inov-8 at all, this would be my go-to shoe for most spring-summer-fall conditions offered up by the Rocky Mountains up to at least the 50k distance. If you haven’t had the chance to try this shoe out, head on into your favorite local trail running store and give them a try. Let me know how the shoe works for you below.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Have you given the Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 shoe a go yet? If so, share your thoughts on the pros and cons of the shoe for you.

Kristin Zosel

is a mom, wife, ultrarunner, physical therapist (on sabbatical), and transcriptionist for iRunFar.com. Her love of steep uphills, high mountain environments, and Swiss “lovely cows” keep alpine visions dancing in her head and strong cappuccinos in her mug.

There are 40 comments

  1. Max

    Thanks for a great and thoroughly detailed review!

    Another shoe in a category other than what Inov-8 is about. I'm not bitter that Inov-8 is branching out into new territories, I'm bitter that the company is doing so at the expanse of quality fell shoes. Dear Inov-8, I do appreciate all the crossfit, road, and non technical trail shoes you made after discontinuing the best shoes you ever made.

    1. Ben_Nephew

      Hi Max,
      In addition to the mudroc's the first shoes inov-8 brought to the US was the flyroc, which was used an AT FKT by Andrew Thompson. I think the 290's are a good replacement for the the Flyroc and the old roclite 320, which many of us loved. I do agree they need to bring back the mudrocs, or something similar. The 243's and X-talons are both great short trail racing shoes, but they are a bit softer than the mudrocs. Not sure what are looking to run and race, but the Oroc 340 is not exactly 340g and one of the best shoes inov-8 has ever made. From my experience, it is a mudroc 290 with better grip and a more comfortable fit. I've worn them on everything from 1 hour fell races to 11 hour mountain 50 milers with 18k of climb. I've been on the team since 2004.

      1. Max

        My all time favorite Inov-8 shoe was the roclite 285. I loved the stiff midsole, great all around grip of the outsole, the last that fit my foot like a glove, and bomber rand that could take a proper beating. Then there was the mudclaw 270, uncompromised bite for all the scree and snow I would ever want to kick a step into. Their respective replacements, the roclite 243 and mudclaw 26-something don't hold up to what the original shoes could take, and neither fits as well.

  2. @frumioj

    Useful review – thanks!

    You say that you would only use this shoe for up to 20 miles on non-technical trail. Is that because of the issues about fit? I am considering this shoe for longer running (ie. 50k+) on trails, which is what Inov-8 seems to recommend it for. So would you ever use it beyond 50k?

    1. kjz

      I should also clarify that I'm not doing a lot of running or racing on smooth, buttery single track right now… So the fit is primarily an issue for me on stuff like Speedgoat, various high country/alpine routes and rocky lower routes in Colorado primarily. It would be far less of an issue for me on the sweet rolling dirt.

  3. Tim

    Hello All – I have the “men’s” version. I agree 100% that this shoe DOES NOT feel one with the foot. I have about 300 miles on mine. I think the rock plate is a little too hard and where I think Inov8 when wrong was not using a RocLite bottom. I live in the Northeast and have felt these bottoms are slippery on wet trails or when running on wet leaves and rocks. They are taking more time to break in than my past experience with Inov8 (315s and 295s (older model 3 arrow). I am getting more and more frustrated with Inov8 as they continue to discontinue good model shoes examples being the orginal 3 arrow 295 RocLite and now recently per Inov8 the 3 arrow 315s Roclite. It appears that everything that Inov8 does is to do away with 3 arrow. Currently their only alternative for a 3 arrow is a Goretex trail runner which doesn’t make sense to me in their RocLite lineup.

    I hope Inov8 remembers the trail runners and continues to design a 3 arrow in the RocLite (non goretex) and continue to make a cushion shoe that can withstand the 50 and 100 mile distance. If the company is not going in that direction I wish they would just come out and say it so I can start looking for a new brand. I have been in the Inov8 models mostly 3 arrow for about 4 years and its a shoe that has worked for me.

    My X-tatic Anti-microbial lining did not last long less than 200 miles.

    Does the iRunFar team have any information on where Inov8 is going in their product lines specific to trail running?

    Thanks for the review!

    1. Ben_Nephew

      Hi Tim,

      The problem is that everyone was complaining that inov-8's were too narrow, so they started making wider forefoots. If you like the fit of many of the older narrow models, this might be a problem if you have a narrow and/or low volume foot. I have a pretty narrow and low volume foot, and I find that doubling up the foot beds helps quite a bit. In some shoes, they switched from a 6mm to a 3mm insole which changed the fit for some. Adding an extra insole in that situation works very well. They do take a bit more time to break in, but I appreciated that stiffness on more technical terrain, like the Presidential Range, vs. the 315 which has a bit too much flex for really rocky. The Goretex models have always been great shoes, but they do need similar non-GTX models, you are right. I'm testing a 3 arrow roclite right now, it is pretty sweet. It is like a 315 that only weighs 280g. The trailroc 255 is enough shoe for a 50 for most. With the new midsole material, the newer 2 arrow shoes are very similar to the older 3 arrow models in terms of protection and cushioning. For example the new X-talon 212's feel like a 3 arrow shoe.

      1. p1fiend

        Hi Ben,
        I just did my first run ever in Inov8’s in a pair of 315’s. I found that my normal size was snug and sizing up there was way too much material in the midsole to the point the fabric was buckling (I’ve been spoiled running the past 2 years in old La Sportiva Quantums). I never thought to add an extra insole – very interesting! I was pleasantly surpised by the grip but also surprised by flexibility of the shoe and how I definitely felt all the CT traprock poking thru.
        You mentioned the Oroc 340 further up – how do they compare in terms of protection to the 315? I am tempted to try a pair for winter, but am concerned that with less lugs, I’ll feel even more rocks poking thru. Any sizing tips for the 340?

        1. Ben_Nephew

          Sounds like you have a low volume foot. The sides of the uppers almost meet at the laces for me, but I had many good races in 315's over the years! The 340's have a lot more protection. With the metal dobs, the shank has to be more substantial to protect your feet from the dobs. I wear Orocs for the Blue Hills, The Devil's Path, and just last weekend the Mahoosuc Traverse, and it doesn't get much rockier than that. The Goretex Roclitesare also a great option year round. The GTX construction adds some stiffness and protection compared to standard 315's. The 255's also have more rock protection, but the roclite grip is superior. Several of the local inov-8 guys run much of their winter mileage in Orocs, me, Kevin, Jim. The extra cost of the GTX roclites and the Orocs in more than worth it in terms of miles per dollar, they are both extremely durable.

      2. Tim

        Hello Ben – thanks for the reply. Will the 315 that you are testing have a name change as well since the weight is 280g? Can you discuss any changes to this new shoe? Do you know if they will have any expansion on Race Ultra and come out with different models, something with a bottom more like the Roclite? I think the Roclite bottoms is more suitable for the Northeast where the current bottom on the Race Ultra is more for out west. I agree with that the newer 2 arrow shoes are very similir to the older 3 arrow but I don’t want to get away from an 8mm or 9mm drop and I feel Inov8 is moving away from that drop range.

        1. Ben_Nephew

          Hi Tim,
          Given all the constructive comments, I'll direct the head designer and wear tester to these comments. I can't be sure I have the final version of the shoe, but I think it will still be a roclite. I tend to think the race ultra sole is a good fit for the NE, since I don't often run in miles and miles of loose substrate, or 12 inches of peat. The most important aspect of the sole around here is rubber compound, and both the roclites and race ultras have good grip. While people associate the roclite grip with the tread pattern, I think it is more the rubber compound. I actually like the fact that race ultra sole cover more of the midfoot with lugs and there is better protection and stability in that area. They are coming out with a 2 arrow race ultra, with the same sole.

  4. kjz

    For me, the fit issues make it too sloppy for longer runs for me. I'd love if Yassine D. from Portland would chime in here because he'd be a great resource on how the shoe works for longer distances.
    (Sorry this posted in the wrong place–supposed to be a reply to @frumioj)

    1. ScottD

      kjz –

      Yassine and I both used the Ultra 290’s at the Cayuga Trails 50m, and I’ve run a number of 40-60 mile runs in them. They work well for the long distances, particularly once you dial in the right sock. These have more space in the toe box, as noted above, so I found a slightly thicker sock (Injinji trail 2.0) helped it feel snug. There was a lot of steep up and down at Cayuga, and it held well, even when wet. It’s solid, and I continue to reach for them for the longer miles.

      SD

  5. Andy

    I had some success with the Trailroc 255s on long (50+ mile) runs, as it also had a roomier toebox than the traditional Inov-8 models. But they only worked for me with an after-market insole added because I also found the midfoot wrap and lack of arch support on those prevented the with the "oneness with foot" feel we all crave. Sounds like the 290s might have some similar drawbacks. Great, thorough, balanced review. Thanks!

  6. garygellin

    This shoe is killer (IMHO :) )! I wore them at Squamish 50 Mile with good comfort for 8 plus hours and great handling on the roots and steep drops. I also like the not-discontinued RocLite 295 for training and X-Talon 212 for 50k and shorter races.

    1. Tim

      Gary can you explain what you mean by the “not-discontinued Roclite 295”? The orginal Roclite 295 was 3 arrow the new model is 2 arrow.

      Thank you

      1. garygellin

        Tim, I can't tell you exactly what's changed, but I've heard the drop for this new RocLite 295 is only 1mm less. What I can tell you is that is has the same good knobby RocLite tread. The construction seems similar to the previous generation, but it is a better fit and feel for me. I'm also running regularly in TrailRoc 245s, RaceUltra 290s, and X-Talon 212s.

  7. dcpattie

    INOV8 is still searching for a true replacement for the original Roc-lite 295's. Please INOV8, go back to a simple, 3 ARROW shoe with the Roc-lite tread!

  8. davidjkm

    I've got the men's version and I completely agree with your overall analysis: great sole for grip and 'foot-plant', great mid-sole for cushioning and feel, great upper for everything but stability – it's just too loose around the heel and, perhaps, 'cylindrical' around the mid-foot, so on anything other than pretty smooth, flat ground, it just doesn't feel that stable; the foot twists and slips a bit. Not terrible (like my Patagonia Everlongs, which are a sloppy nightmare on technical trail), just a let-down compared with everything else about the shoe. I've the same problem with the Inov-8 Trail-Roc 245's, although perhaps less noticeable on account of their shallower mid-sole. The 290s might feel more stable half a size down, but I would probably then be bashing my toes against the end of the shoe.
    That said, for long, easy running, where I don't mind taking my time on technical down-hills, they're great – my feet love them.

  9. davidjkm

    I don't know if this is the appropriate place to suggest it, but I'd love to see an IRF review of the Brooks PureGrit 3. I've just got a pair of them and would really have trouble finding flaw. They just flow, real smooth, real steady, without gimmicks.
    (No commercial interest, I assure you – the PG2's were far less great, seemed to me to have a kind of built-in camber to the heel – but the PG3s are really everything I'm looking for, at least for every-day distances; I've not done more than a 10-mile run in them yet.)

  10. @brendan_davies

    Hi all. I was fortunate to be involved in the testing and feedback of the Race Ultra 290. There's been some very good points raised in this thread and many of the technical aspects of the shoe were very similar to those that I raised. I thought the shoe was a great 1st attempt at making a shoe that appealed more to the less-minimalist shoe wearers out there; showing that Inov-8 are willing to diversify their range to suit the growing number of trail runners all over the world. While my shoe of choice is the TrailRoc, just for its all-round capabilities, I wasn't far off choosing this one for WSER this year (especially after seeing how little technical running there is in the race). This shoe is a great starting shoe for beginner runners or those taking their first steps into the world of ultra trail.

    I've now been fortunate to get my hands on the next model in this series; the Race Ultra 270. Lower profile, less cushion and a drop of 4mm, it delivers! From a proprioception point of view, it is much more aligned with how I like to feel the ground. I've definitely found my shoe for WSER next year.

  11. kjz

    Thanks for all the continued comments and feedback. Thanks also to those who have a direct line to Inov-8 and what you've added, explained, and will communicate back.

  12. Ben_Nephew

    For those who are having fit issues, I would be interested in knowing if trying 2 insoles and/or thicker socks helps at all, and if you think a couple of other changes might help.

    1. Extend the lacing further down towards the toe to improve forefoot fit.

    2. Move the uppermost lace eyelets up and back towards the heel to improve heel fit. This is something that could be experimented with on your own with a small amount of work.

  13. kjz

    Thanks, Ben.
    1. For me, it's all about the midfoot. I like the roomy toe box/forefoot, but the midfoot is where I lose the "fit." This results in awkward quick tips off rocks and such as my foot moves independently from the midfoot/shoe. I would have to somehow be able to snug up through the midfoot without narrowing anywhere else. I like the heel cup fit as well.
    2. This would likely give me anterior tib tendonitis. Again, I like where the laces are close to my ankle, as well. I tried another lacing technique up at the top that is supposed to help anchor your foot in better, but it doesn't improve anything through the forefoot.
    Additionally:
    3. I am wary to mess with socks as I have my drymax socks dialed in resulting in nary a blister unlike when I use various other brands/thicknesses. I don't think it would solve my underlying fit issue.

    4. The addition of another insole is a possibility that could help things including a bit more arch support in addition to changing my relationship with the midfoot of the shoe… then again, I'm not a huge fan of adding another 30$ (or whatever superfeet run these days) to a less than perfect fitting shoe when I could just go with a perfectly fitting shoe. :) But it might be worth a try…

    It's still a great shoe… but for me, this midfoot fit is the crux.

    Thanks for your continued input.

  14. Ben_Nephew

    Hi Kristen,

    That clarifies things quite a bit, sounds like it is an arch/midfoot volume issue for you. With the insole, I was thinking more of an insole from another shoe. Doubling up can fill voids and create more of a custom fit for your foot. A couple years ago, there were several inov-8 models that switched to a thinner insole, and it was amazing how much that affected fit. I just doubled two of the thin ones, or put a thicker one in there from a different model.

  15. craigw123

    Just bought the Ultra 290. Ditto the comments. Sloppy in the mid foot, feet slide around, particularly on the downhill. My perfect shoe was the older Roclite 295, but I just can't run in a 6mm drop shoe. Too hard on feet and Archilies for longer races.

    Unfortunately my long love affair with Inov-8 is over as am out of options :-(.

  16. Dougger

    Started running in Ultra 290 just after they came out and agree with several of the comments above… they are too roomy for me in the mid-foot and I have had to add a thicker Inov-8 insole to help along with major tightening of the laces… which is annoying! When you are cinched in tight they are great shoes… I used them at Leadville and bombed the downhills with great protection and agility, also good with water shedding… so 100's are fine for these shoes, the only issue in my experience with them is that they are way too roomy. Also to the early comments, I had run for years in the Roclite 295's until they updated them with new uppers a couple years ago and they too became too roomy compared to the older models… such a bummer when you have a great shoe and then they mess with it!

  17. Tim

    Just wanted to provide an update of the RaceUltra 290 after wearing them for a couple of months. Please note this picture is of the left foot and you can see the wear line going across the top of the shoe and I am afraid this will continue to “thin” and tear. This is also happening on the right upper as well. I have emailed Inov8 but they have not responded. I will keep you updated on what the outcome is.

    pic.twitter.com/ktqbMhOYrC

  18. dgladeau

    hey Kristin. I'd be interested to find out if you were able to find a shoe between the Speedcross and Pearl Izumi M2s that don't bother your posterior chain for longer distances. This really struck a chord as I have the exactly same issue with the same shoes!_Thanks!

    1. KristinZ

      I keep wearing the Speedcross… I can do the Speedcross Vario now that they have that with more cushioning, similar fit, but less aggressive tread… but I’m PSYCHED to see the speedcross 4 coming out with more cushion! I really can’t wait to test those as they may be perfect.
      For less technical terrain, I do like the Montrail Caldorado–Review on this site–I bought a second pair and didn’t have the break-in issues I did with the first pair. The La Sportiva Akasha was great, but 6mm is still too low of a drop for me to wear every day or for too long. There are several new shoes coming out in Feb 2017 with 8mm drop… keep your eyes out! Yeehawww!

  19. Naomi

    Hi Kristin:
    I couldn’t agree with you more. I too am having a problem with my downhill running and these shoes. My foot continues to slip inside and when I tie them tight enough so my foot doesn’t slip, well, then they are too tight and hurt. If I only ran on flat trails, I don’t think I would have a problem, but this would be impossible. :-)
    These are my 2nd pair of Inov-8 that I have bought in the last 2 months and I am still not happy. If you have any other suggestions since you last posted this, I would love to hear.
    Thanks!!

    1. KristinZ

      Depending on your terrain and traction needs… I really like the Montrail Caldorado for less technical needs (for me)… the La Sportiva Akasha has a great fit (only 6mm drop, so that’s getting a bit low for me in a daily shoe)… Salomon Speedcross and Speedcross Vario also work well for me.Good luck!

  20. Alex

    Hi Kristin,
    I recently bought those and ran a couple of mountain/trail races with them. I have mainly negative impressions. The shoes have absolutely no traction on rock or on wet surface especially downhill. The soles are too thin and hard and I get blisters on my toes. Also I feel unstable and tend to sprain my ankles with them. I ran a 65K trail ultra marathon with my cheap Puma Descendant V2 shoes and I felt much, much better with them than with the Inov-8 290. I also used to run with an old pair of hiking Fiveten shoes and they had the best traction of all.

    1. KristinZ

      Bummer! They have two new shoes coming out in Feb 2017 that Bryon just highlighted in his OR article from this month. Good luck in finding “your shoe!” It seems like, similar to jeans, some years there are great options, and some years you’re buying the old models on sale that you prefer. :) ha ha!

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