The Race Ultra 290 is Inov-8’s first shoe that is designed specifically for the Ultra runner, offering more support and cushioning than their other models to provide additional forgiveness and protection for extra-long excursions. In doing this, they also claim to have retained the brands core values of ‘natural foot function’, flexibility, light weight and proprioception. Marrying these factors together is no mean feat as there is often a fine line between protectively-cushy shoes and clumpy ones so I was intrigued to review them and see how it worked out.
So is it any good I hear you ask? Well, I’ve had a pair on test for a while now and before I go on to review the shoe, I should firstly provide some context by pointing out that I spend most of my time hopping around in tiny little skippy shoes so this inevitably gives me a different perspective to someone who usually runs in Hoka’s for example, so please bear that in mind.
Out of the box, the 290’s are noticeably more substantial than Inov-8’s other models but certainly not maximal in construction. The impressive randing covers the entire lower portion of the shoe with an extra layer around the toes for additional protection. The shoes are surprisingly flexible despite the relatively thick midsole and the heel cup is cushioned and pliable. The interior of the shoe is soft with no seams to cause abrasions and the footbeds come with some silvery looking threads weaved into them which are supposed to inhibit bacteria and stop them getting smelly.
From the first time I tried them on, the 290’s simply felt very comfortable and ‘right’ straight away. The fit is generous but not sloppy with a nice, roomy toe box. The tongue is soft and comfortable without being too big and annoying, it’s really quick and easy to get the lace tension right to suit your foot volume, the sizing is consistent with other Inov-8 models…. It’s all good stuff and I really can’t come up with any constructive criticisms.
The 290’s are basically a very nice place to put your feet for a few hours and this is clearly an important factor for ultra racing. I don’t usually wear running shoes for casual use but the Race Ultra’s are easily the most comfy pair that I own so I’ve found myself using them in all sorts of situations (maybe should’a gone for the black ones).
I had it in my head that the Race Ultra 290 was going to work best for trotting along steadily on hardpacked, non-technical trails for hours and hours and hours…and… I’ts true to say that they excelled in these conditions, offering extreme comfort and making me feel safe in the knowledge that they would get the job done without causing me any issues. However, they also exceeded my expectations in many other areas and proved much more versatile than I had imagined.
Given my normal preference for skinnier shoes, my expectations of the performance of the 290’s on techy’ rock were low but I was surprised by how agile and stable they felt. Proprioception levels are pretty good and I can’t say I ever felt especially at risk from ankle rolling, despite the fact that the midsole is a little higher than what I am used to. You can’t quite dance around in the same way as you can with something like the Salomon Sense, but the cushioning of the 290 offers other advantages in that you can often simply straight-line it through sections of sharp or loose pebbles without having to think too much about your foot placement – this is a definite advantage for running ultra’s as most people have enough on their mind trying to put one foot in front of the other, without having to worry about hopping and fannying around.
Grip levels in moderate mud are surprisingly good whilst dry rock, wet rock, loose ground, sand and asphalt are all handled without fuss.
Underfoot protection levels are excellent and the forefoot cushioning suited me perfectly for long runs, being neither especially soft nor firm. The heel feels quite a bit softer and this obviously reflects the additional thickness of the midsole. I tend to run with a forefoot-midfoot strike and vast majority of the shoes I use in range from between zero to five millimeters of heel drop. However, I’ve definitely noticed that my foot strike shifts back towards a midfoot-heel pattern if I get tired during a long run and the softness of the heel and the 8mm drop of the 290’s felt welcome in these circumstances. I’m not sure that we have any conclusive evidence to link running efficiency with foot strike patterns but I think it’s pretty obvious that efficiency drops rapidly once your ‘natural’ running style (whatever that may be) starts to slip due to fatigue and shoes with a bit of extra cush’ and support can help take the edge off of this. That certainly seemed to be the case with the 290’s as my legs and feet generally seemed fresher after long runs compared to how I would usually feel after wearing svelter shoes.
So whilst I’m pretty sure that the cushioning helped me conserve energy on long runs, the 290’s are 50-100g heavier than almost all of the other shoes I regularly wear and I did feel as though this swung the pendulum of efficiency back in the opposite direction a little. Curiously, my Ambit2 tells me that my cadence tends to be 5-10bpm slower when wearing them (regardless of pace) and I’m pretty sure that the weight is a contributory factor in this. This may or may not be an issue for you, depending on the weight of the shoes you are currently running in.
I’m not especially prone to blisters or hot spots around the toes and the 290’s caused me no problems whatsoever in this regard. I did have a small irritation on my achilles on one occasion after descending about 1000m of exceptionally steep and rough ground and I put this down to the tall heel cup, which at 80mm from the footbed is about 5-10mm higher than all of the other shoes I am currently using. I’m not going to cite this as a flaw though as they’re not really designed with the steep stuff in mind.
Whilst I’ve only had the Race Ultra 290 for a few weeks, I have been able to give them a pretty decent hammering during that time including some proper abusive mountain use and they are showing almost zero signs of wear. No tears, no abrasions, nothing. Even the outsole looks almost as good as new, thanks to the harder ‘tri-c’ compound in the higher wear areas. This is obviously particularly reassuring for ultra use as having a shoe fail in the middle of a race or whilst running in a remote area is the last thing you would want… plus they cost £120 so it would be pretty annoying.
Put simply, the 290’s fit the brief perfectly as an ultra shoe in that they are comfortable, durable and dependable without being clumsy. They exceeded my expectations in many areas and do their job with a minimum of fuss so you can have one less thing to worry about when you are already doing something really really hard. What else could you ask for? Well, as I’ve said above I was quite aware of the weight of the shoes, but if you were to reduce the weight, you would probably pay the price in durability and protection so it’s a tradeoff. Overall, I would have no hesitation in recommending them for ultra runners or those who want a sturdy, reliable trail shoe with a decent amount of cushioning.
This product was provided for testing by the manufacturer (see here for my gear review policy).
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