There have been a lot of new trail running brands out there over the past several years, to the point where keeping track of everything coming out can at times seem impossible. So, we pick and we choose based on initial impressions from trade shows, early release buzz, and general word of mouth from other runners. Topo Athletic was initially a brand that I wrote off. Their shoes seemed aesthetically uninspiring and their marketing even less so. They seemed like another brand trying to capitalize on the ‘natural’ running movement, CrossFit, and the minimalism craze that frankly I’m quite tired of.
But to understand Topo Athletic as a company you have to understand it’s founder, Tony Post. A former D1 collegiate runner and 2:25 marathoner, Post started in the shoe business with Rockport back in the 1980s. Yes, that Rockport. Like, the dorky-looking dress shoes your dad would rave about wearing to the office because they didn’t hurt his feet. He then became CEO of Vibram USA for 11 years. With this shoe-design background he founded Topo in 2013 with the hopes of getting right what other companies had not: designing a natural running shoe that retained the beneficial features of performance running shoes.
I’ll admit, I first came upon these shoes after hearing several trail runners discussing that they’d converted from Altra to Topo shoes after not being able to handle the zero drop and sometimes-sloppy midfoot of certain Altra models. There are some similarities between the brands, most notably the foot-shaped toebox design as well as employing minimalist features with enough cushioning for ultra distances. But the similarities really stop there, and Topo is now earning accolades for these utilitarian designs.
In the balance of this article, we review and compare the Topo Athletic MT-2 ($100) and the Topo Athletic Ultrafly ($120).
Topo Athletic MT-2
The MT-2 is a very simple and straightforward shoe that has been a pure joy to run in. This shoe is an exercise in simplicity and perfectly melds the type of features you’d expect in a ‘natural’ shoe: flexibility, low drop, an agile feel, and just enough cushioning for ultras.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Upper
The upper of the MT-2 is really where the weight savings seems to come in with ultralight mesh and a ton of welded-on overlays throughout the midfoot that give the shoe a very locked-down fit. A gusseted tongue and traditional laces compliment this sensation, and this is one of the only shoes I’ve ever worn with a natural or foot-shaped toebox where I didn’t have issues with my foot sliding forward on downhills. In fact, the MT-2 is one of the most confidence-inspiring, go-fast trail running shoes I’ve worn in years. A nice, rubberized toe bumper protects from kicking rocks and compliments this elegantly simple upper construction. While I’ve heard of some runners having issues with the upper mesh blowing out on the medial and lateral sides of the shoe, I have not experienced this issue and the mesh looks to be holding up well.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Midsole
With a 3mm heel drop and a weight of 8.5 ounces for a men’s size 9 U.S., the MT-2 sounds like a pretty minimalist shoe. However, the 23mm stack height shows that it has some pretty substantial cushioning for the weight. The full-length EVA midsole has a very plush and springy feel, which hasn’t disappeared in 150 miles of running. And while the MT-2 doesn’t have a rock plate, I didn’t have any issues with stone bruising or sore feet.
Comparatively, the cushioning of the MT-2 is similar in both stack height and firmness to a shoe like the Altra Lone Peak 3.0, Nike Kiger 3, or Pearl Izumi N2 V2. The durometer of the shoe is relatively soft but very smooth and works best for faster-paced running on less-technical terrain.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Outsole
The outsole of the MT-2 is one area where I would expect some changes in the coming years. While the extremely low-profile multi-directional lugs work great for dry trails and hybrid road/trail runs, there isn’t much there to grab when the conditions get really sloppy. The outsole rubber does perform well on wet surfaces and it is high abrasion and seems to take a beating without showing any wear.
Topo Athletic Ultrafly
While technically a road shoe, the Ultrafly has the pedigree to handle all but the most technical trails. It is hard not to compare this shoe to the Altra Paradigm or Hoka Huaka as its supreme cushioning but stable stack height works well on a variety of surfaces.
Topo Athletic Ultrafly Upper
The upper of the Ultrafly is very similar in construction and feel to that of the MT-2, and it provides a good deal of confidence on technical trails without feeling restrictive. This particular toebox shape is, in my opinion, the best on the market, offering ample room for toe splay and swelling without feeling sloppy at all. I can wear both the Ultrafly and MT-2 with whatever thickness of socks most compliment the weather on the day and not worry about feeling hemmed in. The Ultrafly also has a rubber toe bumper which, while unnecessary for a road shoe, confirms my belief that this hybrid shoe works fairly well on the trails.
One odd feature is the addition of two Achilles pads on the heel collar on either sides of the heel notch. Initially, this felt odd but after the first run in the Ultrafly I never noticed them.
Topo Athletic Ultrafly Midsole
Boasting a 5mm drop and weighing a svelte 9.2 ounces for a men’s size 9 U.S., the Ultrafly packs a ton of semi-firm cushioning into its 28mm stack height. While this firmer midsole cushioning works great on the roads it also offers protection from rocks on hardpacked trails. It is surprising just how much cushioning this full-length, three-piece midsole provides, and with varying degrees of firmness in the construction, some stability is provided as well.
Even with the 28mm stack height, the Ultrafly does feel pretty stable. I never got the sense that I was wearing a maximal shoe and the firmness of the cushioning lends itself to faster-paced running. However, I feel most comfortable in the Ultrafly going for easy recovery runs on pavement and mellow trails.
Topo Athletic Ultrafly Outsole
Just as with the uniformity in their uppers, Topo tends to use a similar outsole pattern in all of their road shoes. This high-abrasion carbon rubber is featured over the entire length of the shoe and really seems to increase traction and durability.
Right out of the box I was very impressed with both of these Topo Athletic models. I have been suffering over the past year with some arthritis in my big toe, making any tapered toeboxes positively painful after a few miles. I really think that wearing these Topo models over the last few months really helped to decrease swelling and inflammation. The Topo toebox design isn’t sloppy in the least and the rubberized toecap really helps protect and maintain the shape of the toebox. While the designs are quite minimalist with simple uppers, EVA foam without a rock plate, and low-profile outsoles, the real beauty of these shoes is their simplicity. The uppers are very lightweight and breathable, offering just enough protection from the elements and great drainage when wet. The EVA midsoles are resilient and protective enough without a rock plate, and while I could see a bit more outsole lugging adding benefit in future versions, it didn’t bother me enough to keep me from choosing them on an almost-daily basis.
With a shoe like the MT-2, I’m not quite sure if I could wear it for longer than 50 miles. It is currently my favorite shoe for throwing on for a faster-paced jaunt up to 10 miles. The transition of the MT-2 and overall trail feel is incredibly smooth and its the kind of shoe you forget you’re wearing. As it turns out, Topo recently released the Terraventure, which features a rock plate and additional cushioning and which may be a proper ultra shoe for the longer distances.
The nice thing about Topo shoes is that the uppers don’t vary much from model to model. You can guarantee that if you like the fit of these shoes you will likely do well in other models. It is rare these days for a shoe company to offer similar lasts and fit in multiple road and trail models, which could create a lot of converts to the Topo brand. My only request to Tony Post and his design team is to keep up the good work, and don’t mess with a good thing.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you tried any of the Topo Athletic models? If so, which ones and what have your experiences with them been like?
- Are you running in the MT-2 or the Ultrafly? Can you share some specific thoughts about these shoe models?
[Editor’s Note: If you’re affiliated (i.e., an employee, ambassador, etc.) with brand that produces running shoes, please share your relation in each of your comments on this article. Thanks!]