Counter-propagating sub-picosecond pulses are used to monitor gain saturation along the waveguide of an InGaAs superlattice semiconductor optical amplifier at 1550 nm wavelength. The functional form of the spatial dependence of gain saturation is found to depend on pulse energy. These observations are interpreted by combining the optical nonlinearities associated with interband carrier dynamics and carrier heating together and their respective time constants. We show that the results are consistent with the predictions of a propagation model. Implications for all-optical switching, particularly in the limit of full saturation across the whole amplifier, are discussed. (c) 2005 American Institute of Physics.