Sunday, March 06, 2016

Review- Topo Athletic MT-2: a lightweight, do-anything, neutral trail shoe.

Article by Dominick Layfield

Editor's Note: We are thrilled to have Dominick Layfield, one of the top ultra runners in Utah, test and review the Topo Athletic MT-2. In 2015, he raced the Wasatch Front 100 (5th place), The Bear 100 (2nd, twelve days later!), and Rio Del Lago 100 (1st).
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield
I received a pair of MT-2 shoes from Topo Athletic in mid-November, just as the snow started to permanently settle in Park City.  The timing seemed unfortunate, as I’d hoped to get a chance to test them on dry trails, and these seemed to be ill-suited to running in snow.

Moreover, when I tried them on, I was disappointed to discover that they were little short.  I could feel my big toe touching the end of the shoe.  I was in two minds about whether to ask Topo to send me the next size up, but decided that unless the shoes were horribly mis-sized, the most valid test would be to run in them as-is.

Looking at the outsole tread, I was initially skeptical about how they would do in the snow.  Turns out that I was wrong.  I can’t say that their grip in snow is stellar, but the shoes surprised me by being perfectly adequate.  Additionally, the fine, smooth mesh of the upper shed the snow quite well -- much better than, for example, the Altra Lone Peak 2.5 (regular, non-neoshell version).

After a few runs in snow, I felt that there wasn’t much more I could do, testing-wise, until the weather warmed up and the snow melted.  However, I had entered for the Sean O’Brien 100k race, held in California in early February, and figured this would be a good opportunity to test the MT-2 further.  I did a couple of road runs ahead of the race: a last-minute attempt to accustom my legs to a hard surface.  The MT-2’s felt great on the road, and with no fit issues that made me doubt I’d be able to race an ultra in them.

Sean O’Brien didn’t go well for me.  I came down with flu a week before the race, and though I felt sufficiently recovered to run, I wasn’t healthy enough to race.  I started feeling mildly crappy and things steadily deteriorated. My heart rate was sky-high, and I found myself going slower and slower, and drifting further and further off the pace until I finally pulled the plug at 35 miles.  So… not a great race personally, but the shoes performed outstandingly on the smooth trails of the Santa Monica mountains.  Even though this was a shoe I’d scarcely worn, I didn’t have any blister or rubbing issues, and felt no sloppiness or looseness.

Generally, the shoe is excellent in almost every way, and on almost all surfaces.  I dislike ‘specialist’ shoes that only perform well in very specific conditions, and was very pleased how well the MT-2 handled everything I threw at it.  They feel great on road, great on dry trails, and decent in mud and both slushy and packed snow.

Overall, I really liked these shoes.  They are light.  They strike an excellent balance between being low to the ground and having enough cushioning.  They are low-drop (nominally 3 mm), without going all the way to zero like Altra shoes.  The sole is flexible, and doesn’t seem to have any superfluous stiffening elements.  The cushioning is great: plenty for all but the roughest surfaces, and with a very pleasing ‘squishiness’.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield
Above all, they pass my “shoe bin” test: I keep my running shoes in a huge tub.  After running in a shoe, I drop them on top of the pile.  Shoes that I like and use regularly stay on top; shoes that I’m not so enamored with sink and disappear.  The MT-2’s have remained on the surface since I started wearing them.

Some details:

Weight for my size 10 US pair was 529 g (9.3 oz per shoe). Men's size 9: 8.5oz/241 g, Women's size 7: 6.8 oz/193 g.

Heel-to-toe drop is given as 3 mm, and that feels about right.  This is low enough that I don’t feel any sudden transition when switching between these and Altras.  But likely the extra few millimeters of heel will make them more accessible to runners accustomed to traditional running shoes.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield

Arch support is slight, which is how I like it.  I have fairly flat feet, and find that shoes with a prominent arch uncomfortable.  The arch in the MT-2’s didn’t annoy me.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield
The Toe box is definitely wide, although not Altra wide.  Interestingly, the shape is fairly traditional through the lateral metatarsal-phalangeal joint (the widest part of your foot) and gets wider further forward.  This means that foot spread is largely limited to the toes (phalanges) themselves, and there is little room for expansion further back in the mid-foot (metatarsal) area.  Barefoot/minimal shoe purists might complain that this limits natural foot spread, but it does mean that the shoe feels secure on the foot, especially during sharp turns.  I have fairly wide feet, and enjoy the room of a wide toe box, but have occasionally found that the comfort comes at the cost of the shoe feeling a little loose and insecure when cornering or running off-camber trails.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield

Tongue construction is traditional (not burrito or sock) and padding is minimal.  Latter doesn’t seem be to be an issue as the laces are round (as opposed to flat) and plump and did not dig into my foot.  Also notable is that the tongue stayed nicely in place.  

Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield

The upper is thoroughly excellent.  The mesh is highly breathable, but fine enough that I didn’t experience any issues of dust accumulating in the shoe.  The lightweight overlays appear to be useful, rather than cosmetic:  there’s a reinforcing ring around the circumference of the shoe where it joins the sole, and also running up to the lace eyelets.  They dry quickly after running through streams, and the peripheral overlay helps keep out water when splashing through shallow puddles.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield
Appearance of a shoe is inevitably subjective, and not something I normally pay much attention to but I happen to think these are very fine-looking.

Theres a rubbery toe bumper that I’m ambivalent about.  It seems like a good idea, but I found that it can develop a small fold or indentation that brings that part down, closer to your toes.  Given that I thought the shoes already run a little short, this might mean that folks with toenail issues might find the shoe uncomfortable.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield
Traction and grip was excellent.  The outsole is not aggressively lugged, which means the shoe runs very well on smooth, hard surfaces.  These might not be an optimal choice on, say, wet grass, but they performed well on every surface I encountered.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield
Cushioning is impressive for such a light shoe.  As mentioned above, the midsole foam has a pleasing amount of squish which was right in the Goldilocks zone for me, but may not be to everyone’s taste.  When I deliberately sought out sharp, prominent rocks, I did feel a little discomfort, but in my opinion these shoes strike an almost perfect balance between trail feel, cushioning, and rock protection.

Stability/motion-control features are pretty much non-existent, as they should be.  I couldn’t discern any stiffening inserts in the midsole, which is a good thing.  IMHO these are almost invariably either pointless or worse, make the shoe less stable.  If my heel lands at an angle, that means the trail is off-camber: I don’t want the shoe trying to straighten my leg out, so that it is perpendicular to the surface.  I want the shoe merely to soften the impact and not attempt to tell my leg what angle it should be at!   However, if you have gait issues that mean you don’t play well with ‘neutral’ running shoes, you’re not going to like the MT-2.  These are completely neutral.  Similarly, the upper is essentially uniformly flexible everywhere except for a slight reinforcing ring in the ankle collar, and a moderately stiff heel counter.
Topo Athletic MT-2 Photo Credit: Dominick Layfield

The heel of the shoe has a comparatively narrow profile.  In my opinion, this is a huge plus.  I dislike trail shoes that have a wide, flared heel that is apparently intended to make the shoe more ‘stable’.  I believe the flawed rationale behind this design is that the wings help to ‘correct’ an angled heel strike.  But the reality is that trails are not flat, and (as discussed above) a shoe should not presume to realign anything.  Trail shoes should ideally have a narrow, rounded heel (the original Nike Terra Kiger was awesome in this regard) that allows the leg to maintain its natural angulation.  The analogy I like to think of is motorbike tires: imagine how unpleasant cornering would be if bike tires had a flat surface like a car tire.

  • Shoe runs a little short.  You might experience some toe rub if you buy your regular size; shoe might feel a little loose if you size up.
  • Similar to above, toe bumper can develop a fold that causes rubbing on top of toes.
  • The spacious toe box may not be to everybody’s taste.  I found that there seemed to be an excess of room on the medial side of my big toe.  It didn’t seem to have any negative consequences, though.
  • Durability to be determined.

An excellent, lightweight, flexible but well-cushioned trail shoe with no superfluous stability ‘features ’.  It has a wide toe box, and low HTT drop, somewhat like an Altra shoe in both respects, but less extreme.  I would wear these on all but the gnarliest trails, and for races over distances up to 100 km.   The only notable downside that I experienced was that they run a little short, which might be a problem if you have sensitive toes.

Score: 5.0, minus 0.5 for short length/toe rubbing issue = 4.5 / 5   [Almost perfect]

Weight: Men's size 9: 8.5oz/241 g, Women's size 7: 6.8 oz/193 g.
Stack: 18 mm heel, 15mm forefoot including 4.5mm outsole rubber
Price and Availability: $100. Available now. 

Editor's Note: Also see our review of the Topo Magnifly, a very fine similar road trail hybrid here with discussion of the design principles in all Topo Athletic shoes.

The Topo Athletic MT-2 were provided to Road Trail Run at no charge. The opinions herein are entirely the author's.

Reviewer Bio Dominick Layfield lives in Park City, UT, and is an avid trail runner who likes to race. He runs 10-15 races each year, mostly in the 50-100 km range. He holds a PhD in biomedical engineering from MIT, and has worked as a researcher in orthopedic biomechanics. So he knows the difference between a ligament and tendon :-). In 2015, he raced the Wasatch Front 100 (5th place), The Bear 100 (2nd, twelve days later!), and Rio Del Lago 100 (1st).

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John said...

Thanks for the review Dominick, given you were going to run these in SOB100k, do you think they would handle a 100?

Telemarker said...

Hi John. Short answer: I think they would be just fine for a smooth/fast hundo like Rocky Raccoon or Javalina Jundred. Personally, I would want a little more structure and protection for something more rugged like Wasatch. But it totally depends on what your feet are used to. John Burton, for example, has run Hard Rock (twice!) wearing Montrail FluidFlex, which is essentially just soft foam and fabric. I love that shoe too, but wouldn't want to wear them in anything longer than a 50 mile.

John said...

Hi Dom, definitely can relate. It sounds like it has just enough protection to handle groomed single track or fireroads and has enough cushion to to protect your calves and quads, but probably not a go-to for anything technical or steep. Thanks!

Joe G said...

I agree with you on fit: the shoes were short in length in my regular size and too big in 1/2 size bigger. Too bad, all else about them were appealing

Climbingbubba said...

These shoes look pretty awesome and perfect for what I am looking for but the sizing might be the thing that kills me. I am usually between a 12 and 12.5. With them only offering 12 or 13 I may be out of luck. I guess I need to go find somewhere in SLC to try them on. Great review!

NC runner said...

MT2 is actually 23mm x 20mm. Great shoe and great price. I use them as an Alta alternate on both road and trail.

Outdoorsdan said...

Gonna take these on desert and mountain trails, from Moab to CO High Peaks. Bike touring, car camping, After a couple of good shoe choices in the past-Altra, Montrail FF, These were on sale and with this review and others, I got real lucky, almost bought a pair of Hoka ATR's. I like to backpack a lot of overnighters-the Highine trail in Utah in September, is a long hike planned and I think these shoes will be perfect. Mostly above 10,000 ft, 80 miles, check it out.