Skechers GOtrail Ultra 3: Max Cushion Done Right
Posted on June 23 2016
For any of you who have followed Runblogger for a while, you know that I haven’t been crazy about very many max-cushioned shoes. This is not to say that I am closed off to the idea. Despite starting from a more minimalist framework in my running years ago, I continue to try to be open minded and see how the principles of natural running and good shoe design can be carried over into different tools that runners can use for a wide range running.
I was pretty skeptical that a shoe with a high stack height could retain these principles, and had not run in a highly cushioned shoe that I could tolerate for even an easy recovery run. Until the GOtrail Ultra 3 arrived, that is. Actually, to be fair, the first shoe was likely the GOrun Ultra Road, which is a little lower in stack height but still within the maximal category. Both of these shoes offer a much more flexible ride than is typical in a max cushion shoe, and the fit is by far the best in the category. I’ll get into more details below about how this works so well for the new GOtrail Ultra 3, and why you need this shoe on your feet.
Price: $120 MSRP
Weight: 309 grams (10.9 oz) in mens 9 and 257 grams (9.1 oz) womens 8 (weight via Running Warehouse)
Stack Height: 36mm heel, 32 mm forefoot, midsole height 30mm heel, 26mm forefoot (stack via Skechers Performance)
Upper and Fit
The uppers on the newer Skechers shoes have improved so much from their earlier shoes, that they really aren’t even comparable. If you haven’t tried Skechers in a while, you need to try one of their 2016 models to see what I’m talking about. They’ve gone from producing pretty average uppers with stitched overlays and lower-quality feeling materials (except for the Speed series), to producing uppers that are, in my view, equivalent to, if not the best uppers on the market. The last shape on the Ultra 3 is perfect for a long distance trail shoe, with ample room in the forefoot, but a secure midfoot and heel that allows the shoe to feel secure on steep descents without any constriction of the toes.
Additionally, the tongue is adequately padded, something sometimes oddly missing from trail shoes. A padded tongue is very welcome when you have the shoe on your foot for 5-30 hours in ultra marathon events (especially in shoes with a lot of cushion). The shoe breathes well and drains extremely well, thanks to a mesh strobel, drainage holes in the foot bed, and holes in the side of the midsole (more on that later). If you like Hokas, but have struggled with the narrow toeboxes and the funky midfoot fit, the Ultra 3 is really a dream come true in terms of fit for long races.
Midsole and Ride
At first I wasn’t sure if the upper was what made the Ultra 3 stand apart, or the midsole. I think, in great shoes, all the components work together in a way such that you can’t necessarily separate one component from the other, and the Ultra 3 is a great example of this. However, in the max cushion realm, the midsole and ride of the Ultra 3, more so even than the upper, really sets this shoe apart. As I’ve said before, Hokas fit super narrow and uncomfortable with, in my view, a pretty poor last shape for most feet. Up until now, runners did have the option to turn to one of Altra’s max cushioned models with the Paradigm or Olympus. I’ve run in both the Paradigm 1.5 and Olympus 2.0, and I can say the fit is more comfortable than Hokas by a long shot (although still not as good as the Ultra 3). However, the midsoles of the Altras just don’t ride naturally at all with their drastic toe spring/rocker, stiff feel, and wide overall platform (Olympus 2.0 is better with regard to footprint width).
The Ultra 3 has, hands down, the best ride of any max cushioned shoe on the market. The geometry and footprint of the midsole is just right (not too wide a footprint, and lively feel from midfoot to toe off) to give it proper stability and a smooth, propulsive ride. The 5GEN compound is super soft, but also very resilient (meaning it bounces back and holds shape/resists compression). This makes the shoe feel much lighter than it is, and also much more nimble. Significant flex grooves in the midsole and outsole (interplay between components again) allow for unprecedented flex in a shoe of this stack height. Additionally, the shape narrows in the arch, which decouples the forefoot and heel (natural principles again). This is the opposite approach of Hoka and Altra, which rely on stiff midsoles that are thick/wide through the arch to allow for rockered geometries to get through the gait cycle. In my experience, the rockered soles feel ok at low speeds but really feel unnatural at higher speeds, especially on steep downhills and on technical ground.
The Ultra 3 runs nearly the same as a normal shoe except for the noticeably enhanced cushioning. Gait-wise, I didn’t have to change a thing. This was a massive surprise on the first run in this shoe! The shoe also features a very innovative and effective drainage system that really is a big deal in long races when there are multiple stream crossings and/or it is hot (requiring the runner to get wet constantly to stay cool). The only surface on which I felt the midsole was suboptimal was on super technical terrain when the shoe really flexes torsionally. I’m not sure yet if design could eliminate this issue (I have a few ideas), or if the stack height just won’t allow it. Either way, I can confidently say it is the best maximal ride on the market.
While not as immediately noticeable, the outsole might also be quite revolutionary as well, mainly in how it allows for significant coverage while staying light weight and allowing for a high level of flexibility. At first look, I was convinced I’d be ripping off sections of the outsole quite quickly, and am usually a fan of full coverage outsoles for that reason, and for the consistency of ride that a full outsole provides. The Ultra 3 outsole provides the consistency of ride since it is dispersed evenly due to the web/lattice design. I’m also happy to say it has held up to significant abuse with no sign of de-lamination so far, and I’ve had it on some rough terrain. In this case, I’d say the added flexibility and weight savings are worth the tradeoff since it seems to be holding up great.
The traction is fantastic on anything but ice, snow and mud. This is an issue of softness and high stack since you can’t get the penetration into these surfaces since the ground force pressure is dispersed…one of the trade offs when you add cushion. Overall the lug height is about right, and durability seems on track to last at least 300-400 miles, if not longer, depending on the terrain you run on.
If you’ve made it this far in the review, then you already know that I like this shoe. A lot. The GOtrail Ultra 3 and Ultra Road have opened my mind to the possibility of max cushion shoes providing a ride that still feels natural and is more of an enhancement, in the form of added cushioning, that still works with a runners natural stride. This is a huge difference in feel, and the shoe is category-leading in my mind. If you like Hokas or max cushioned Altras, go out there and try the Skechers GoTrail Ultra 3 (or Ultra Road if you don’t run trails). The midsole material is substantially better, and the fit and ride is next-level for the category. If you’ve shied away from max cushion up to this point, I’d also encourage you to give them a try, particularly if you run ultras or higher volume training. They are surprisingly natural feeling for the stack height, and as someone who believes the foot should control the shoe, not the other way around, these are the first maximal shoes that I feel achieve that. Fantastic job from the Skechers Peformance Division! I can’t wait till I start seeing the Ultra 3s more and more at trail ultras this year. I know they’ll be on my feet a fair bit, particularly in my 100 milers later this summer.