Topo Mountain Racer shoe review
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
Last summer, my friend and running partner, Sophie, and I were on a training run in the mountains covering 18 miles, 14,000 feet of vertical, and two mountain summits. As usual, we spent the majority of our run talking running, skiing, gear, and future goals related to the two sports. Because of the nature of that run, we were discussing the "perfect" mountain running shoe, wishing for a shoe for more technical terrain, that AIDED in rather than inhibited fast, easy and free movement up and over, around and down rocky trails, scree, scrambles, and steep ascents and descents. Skipping ahead almost exactly one year later, Topo has created that shoe. Enter in the Mountain Racer.
Before I begin diving into the details of the shoe, I must preface my review by saying that I am a "minimalist" at heart. As a coach and a mountain and ultra runner myself, my methodology is centered around utilizing tools/techniques to allow your body to move naturally and healthily, and treating the root cause of discomfort, injury, or "issues" related to running and training, which typically has to do with asymmetrical movement, weakness, or lack of mobility. I believe that addressing all of the afore mentioned "problems" in addition to smart and safe training can turn a struggling, injury-riddled runner into a strong, pain-free athlete. Similarly, I do not believe that finding tools or gear to simply "cover up" the issue is the answer, so I'm not usually big on things like braces, tape, orthotics, vitamin i, or overly supportive shoes or gear. If you can get down to the root cause of any running or training related struggle, then you will quickly see that you don't need any of these extras which are really just a mask, but are never the real solution. Okay, now that you know a little bit about me and my running/coaching style, back to my shoe review.
The Topo Mountain Racer has all the boxes checked off when it comes to technical mountain running and racing. I'll begin with some of the main features and specs, then move into my opinions and the feel and ride of the shoe.
As the lightest trail shoe that Topo makes, these shoes weigh in at 7.7oz for Women's size 7, and 9.3oz for Men's size 9. In order to keep the weight down they do not have a rock plate, but in my experience there is no rock plate needed because 1) the sole is fairly thick and the outsole has deep lugs, and 2) being able to feel a little bit of the ground beneath you helps with proprioception and balance. With the heel stack height measuring 30mm and the toe stack height 25mm, there's a 5mm heel to toe drop (more on this later). Medial and lateral drainage ports allow for quick drying when your shoes get wet. The Mountain Racer features a Vibram Megagrip outsole with nice spacing between the deep lugs for optimal traction. As per Topo's standard fit, the toe box is roomy, and the mid-foot nice and snug for a comfy and natural ride. The tongue is re-engineered to fit and feel better, and to not move around at all.
Upon first putting these shoes on, I immediately noticed a few things:
1) The shoes run slightly small. Long story short I ended up returning mine for a 1/2 size larger. On that note, Topo makes returns and exchanges incredibly hassle-free. It was so quick and easy. Once I got my 1/2 size up shoes in the mail I had to play around with the fit for a few runs. Size 8 1/2 happened to be slightly small and size 9 happened to be slightly large, so it was a bit frustrating at first. After one run out and experiencing a slight amount of heel slippage, a fellow Topo ambassador suggested that I try the heel locking lace method, and that totally fixed the issue. I'm glad now that I went with the 1/2 size up as I believe that it's important to have a good amount of wiggle room in the forefoot so that your toes can splay naturally; natural toe splay helps with big toe (hallux) stability which helps with whole-body balance and alignment (did you know that about 80-85% of foot support and therefore balance comes from your big toe?!).
2) They are slightly stiffer than I am used to. I wouldn't call that a bad thing, it was just my first impression. Because of this they required a short break in period; I alternated the Mtn Racer with my Topo Terraventure 2's for about 2 weeks. I am aware that Topo gave these shoes a stiffer ride for a reason: they're made to be technical trail runners and therefore you want shoes that are responsive and stay secure on uneven terrain where you may be scrambling up and running down rocks from scree to boulder size. This is one of the features my friend and I added to the "perfect technical trail shoe" list that we discussed on that run one year ago. No one wants a shoe that moves/bends separately from your foot when you're mountain running.
Another thing I quickly noticed was the 5mm drop. For years my body had been used to zero drop shoes which, in my minimalist beliefs, I think are the most optimal to wear at least part of the time in your life. That being said, over the course of the last year or so I introduced the 3mm drop Terraventure 2's (which I love!) and my body took it well. (Side note: I still believe that using zero drop at least part of the time is healthy for your body, so I make an effort to walk around barefoot as much as possible, and I run barefoot for very brief periods of time (5-10 minutes) occasionally. I'm currently working on adding that to my training regime as a weekly thing rather than just whenever I happen to remember. If you decide to give that a try, please do it carefully, and know that I don't recommend it for everyone without proper build-up and technique. You should first practice foot strengthening and balance exercises to use your feet optimally, and then introduce barefoot running very slowly (1-2 minutes at a time, to start) and on a soft and safe surface such as green grass.) Anyways, back to the shoes. Since my feet were already used to a 3mm drop, it didn't take a lot to get them used to 5mm, but I did notice it. That's another reason why I alternated shoes for the first few weeks. If you currently wear zero drop OR a high drop shoe with, say, 10mm drop, you should carefully introduce your body to the Mountain Racer or you might experience some initial discomfort while your body adjusts. Personally, I would prefer the Mtn Racer to be 3mm drop, but I know that Topo made them 5mm drop to be an aid in steep and technical terrain, and my feet are now used to them so I'm not concerned about this being an issue.
As usual, The Mountain Racers fit snug in the mid-foot and roomy in the toe box. I've always loved how Topo's fit my foot. I like feeling my mid-foot being hugged by the shoe, and as though the shoe moves with my foot but not separate from it. That is exactly how these fit. As mentioned above, I quickly began using the heel-lock lacing system and that was the trick that worked for me for the optimal fit. With heel-locking laces, a snug mid-foot, and a roomy forefoot, I couldn't like how these shoes fit any better. For reference, I would say I have a medium-width foot. Because of all the strength work and stride technique I've worked on over the years (plus just being on my feet for thousands of miles), my feet have widened out some on their own, but I also have pretty bony/skinny/long feet in general. Topo's might work just fine for you if you have narrow feet OR if you have a little wider feet, because of the afore mentioned standard Topo fit. I'd suggest trying them on somewhere before purchasing if you have especially narrow or wide feet.
As you may be able to see in the photo above, the traction on these shoes are incredible. Mountain Racers feature a Vibram Megagrip outsole, and the lugs are thick and spaced far apart enough that they can grip almost anything. So far I've run with them on loose scree, steep granite, dirt trail, and lots and lots of vertical miles, and I've never got the feeling of losing control.
One of the first hikes I did with these shoes was a very steep and rocky but short trail that consisted of 1.5 miles up and 1,600 feet of ascent, with most of the elevation gain being in the last mile (the initial half mile is mostly flat leading to the base of the hill). To add to the difficulty, I was hiking with my 3 month old baby in her front pack. On the downhill I was initially skeptical of the traction and took things pretty slow and easy to avoid slipping and falling with baby in tow, but within a short period of time I began to really trust the grip on these shoes and towards the bottom I was going as quickly as I could down the steep and loose rock trail without actually running. Needless to say, I didn't fall, and by the end of that hike I was sold. Since that hike I have gone on similar hikes with my baby, as well as a handful of runs consisting of 7-8 miles and +/-4,500ft vertical, and have never lost control on the downhill. My very favorite thing about mountain running is flying fast and free on the downhills, and I feel that with these shoes I can do just that.
One of my very favorite features of the Topo Mountain Racer is the newly designed tongue. It is flat and lacks cushion at the top for maximal comfort, and it has one set of lace eyelets on the tongue so that it doesn't budge while on the run. If you've ever experienced the cushion in a tongue bunching or pressing into the anterior part of your ankle and causing discomfort, it's not fun. You're guaranteed to have zero issues with that with this tongue, and you're also guaranteed never to need to stop and re-position the tongue back to center from it slipping to the left or the right during your run. This tongue is fool proof and awesome.
I have yet to be able to test out the drainage ports or the new gaiter system, but I'm excited to do so. I've heard that Topo has re-created their unique gaiter system so that it's easier to take on and off than before. If you've never used gaiters, they're great for keeping out rocks, dust and sand which makes for less stopping to dump shoes, and less chance of blistering from friction. As far as the drainage ports, I'm sure I will test that out soon as I usually purposefully run straight through creeks on training runs to get my feet used to being wet and therefore more resistant to moisture-caused blistering. Along with that, I do love it when shoes dry quickly. My experience with the Terraventures is such that my feet were dry again after 1-2 hours after completely submerging them in water, so I am hopeful it is the same with the Mountain Racers.
I also played around with sock choices, and I have now found my favorite sock/shoe combination. Pair the Topo Mountain Racers with the Injinji Ultra run and you've got yourself a heavenly combination. The ultra run socks are a little thicker than other lightweight socks so it fills any extra room in the shoe. They are also moisture wicking and thick enough that I haven't noticed any friction/heat building when running downhill. This will definitely be my next race combination. Note: I am in no way affiliated with Injinji as I am Topo. I just love their socks.
Overall, the Mountain Racers feel supportive enough yet not too much, they provide a good amount of cushion while not being too far off the ground, and they are on the stiffer side which allows for great responsiveness and for the shoe to move with your foot over technical terrain but not apart from your foot. They have features that really support technical mountain running and racing such as a very lightweight design for what they are, super grippy outsoles and spaced-out lugs for optimal traction on steep, rocky or even snowy terrain, a non-cushioned and non-slip tongue design, drainage ports, and gaiter hooks.
The price of these shoes are just slightly on the more expensive side of things because of all the features and because of the new outer material that Topo uses (which is really shiny and perty and easy to wipe off if you're into your shoes looking nice rather than "well used" aka dirty). They are retailed for $140, which really is pretty normal these days. Plus, if you use my code the price is very comparable or even cheaper than other trail shoes on the market: use code topobgraves10.
If I had to list any cons they would be that I would personally prefer a 3mm drop over a 5mm drop, they require a short break in period, and that the shoes run about a 1/4 size too small. None of these are really cons, and they are definitely not make or breaks for me, as they're all fixable "issues" that I was able to address almost immediately.
If I had to pick a rating on a 1-10 scale for the Topo Mtn Racers I'd give them an 8/10 overall. There isn't really anything perfect out there so the highest I would ever rate anything is 9/10. The reasons I docked 1 point is because of the above mentioned "cons"which as I said aren't really cons after a little bit of play. I recommend the Mountain Racers for anyone who likes to run or hike fast in the mountains, for peak bagging, and for rocky, snowy, or steep up and down trail running.
1) Order 1/2 size up and use the heel-lock lace method if you're in-between sizes
2) The stiffness of the shoe requires a short break-in period, so don't buy the day before a long mountain run or a race.
3) If you're used to zero drop or high drop (8, 10, 12mm), ease your body into these 5mm drop shoes by alternating with your old shoes for a few weeks and slowly introducing them to longer runs.
4) Have no fear, the Vibram Megagrip outsole is here.
5) The new flat tongue = perfect comfort and performance.
6) Take less time off the race clock by bursting through streams rather than slowly rock-hopping across, with the quick-drying lateral and medial drainage ports.
7) Pair with socks that allow for natural toe splay such as Injinji toes socks for best results.
8) Use Bri's discount code TOPOBGRAVES10 to make price comparable to or cheaper than all other trail shoes.
9) Recommend to a friend 10/10.
10) See the shoe and purchase here: