Article by Mike Postaski and Joost de Raeymaeker
Topo Athletic ST-4 ($100)
No frills upper- enough for a secure fit, and nothing more Mike P/Joost
Classic Topo fit- midfoot lockdown + roomy, but not sloppy toebox Mike P/Joost
Supportive footbed, slight contouring under arch Mike P/Joost
Light and quick feeling - encouraging an efficient stride Mike P/Joost
Work well on light (non-muddy) trails Mike P
Rubber toe bumper can make it a minimalist trail candidate Joost
Can feel a bit “clompy” at slower paces Mike P
Fatiguing for lower legs (if unaccustomed to zero-drop) - this can also be considered a “Pro” if you are interested in strengthening your lower legs Mike P
Minimalist runners might not find it minimalist enough Joost
Could probably still be a little lighter Joost
Weight: men's 7.2 oz / 207g (US9) / women's 6.1 oz / 172g (US7)
Sample: men’s 7.4 oz / 210g (US 9.5)
Total Stack Height: 16mm, 0 drop (7mm midsole, 4mm outsole, 5mm insole and board)
$100. Available October 1, 2021.
Mike Postaski Born and raised in New Jersey, recently moved to Boise, ID in 2019, mainly to have better and easier access to outdoor adventure. I have no formal running training, have never run on a team at any level, and can count the times I've run on a track on one hand. I actually grew up inline speed skating - both indoor short track as well as roads. Picking up running in my early 30s, starting on roads, progressing to marathons (PR 2:40, Boise 2019), eventually I discovered trails. I love going fast and running all distances, but I especially love long mountain ultras. My three 100 milers so far have all been in the 25k vert range. I also enjoy the challenge of looped/timed trail races, and even the backyard ultra format. I am definitely a gear junkie - I have gone through more running vests than I can remember, and my trail running shoe collection currently sits at 38 pairs (all tracked via spreadsheet)! My wife does not appreciate this.
Joost is a Belgian in his 50s living in Luanda, Angola, Africa, where he faces the heat, humidity and general chaos to run anything between 60-100 miles per week. He’s on a mission to win in his age group in the 6 marathon majors and has completed half of his project, with a 2:26:10 PB in Berlin in 2019 at 51. He ran in primary school, but then thought it would be a lot cooler to be a guitar player in a hard rock band, only picking up running again in 2012, gradually improving his results.
Mike P I think it’s best for me to set the context for my review here - maybe you will end up disregarding my thoughts, or maybe something might strike you as helpful? I haven’t tried a new road shoe in a while - I’ve been primarily focused on trail running, so while my trail quiver has expanded dramatically, I tend to use my road days for flat training when I want to avoid vert. With an eye toward trails, I’ve been trying to work in less-cushioned, and less “built-up” shoes. Also, I’ve been doing 100% of my casual walking in Vivobarefoot Primus Lites. My goal is to strengthen my feet and lower legs as much as possible. I feel this type of approach can be beneficial to all runners. That being said, on paper the ST4’s seem to match what I’m looking for, let’s see how they go..
Joost: Getting the Topo ST-4 and running in them made me think, so I’m going to start off with a few thoughts on the subjectivity of the whole shoe reviewing process. It is of course unavoidable to be subjective in reviews, even though we try to be as clear and objective as possible. As a reader looking for information, you’ll probably find phrases like “a good fit for my duck feet” and similar acknowledgments of the very personal nature of our appreciation of running shoes. You can then assess for yourself if you have similar feet, a similar build or body shape and run at similar speeds. That’s one of the reasons why the bio information of the reviewers is one of the more important features of the RoadTrailRun and any running shoe review site.
An important facet of a review site that adds to its credibility is the fact that the shoe is reviewed by more than one reviewer. This way, the probability of one of the reviewers matching your own running style or foot shape is definitely greater. I think that here at RoadTrailRun, we are positive minded people. We focus on the plus side and we generally tend to like the shoes we review, but we don’t always agree on their qualities or their intended target runner. After all, lots of people get their shoes online these days, so getting it right on the first try is important. We at RoadTrailRun help you try to make an informed buying decision, but we can’t actually make the decision for you.
Another aspect I was wondering about, and the one that actually got me to write these paragraphs is that the moment in which we as reviewers get a certain pair of shoes and run in it might be one of the deciding elements of our review.
All this to tell you I got the Topo ST-4 at a moment when I had decided to do a full hard reset of my running in order to fix chronic injuries and get stronger as a 53 year old runner. My achilles’ tendons have been sore and tender for years and at the start of 2021 I also picked up a left foot and a right hamstring tendon injury that wouldn’t let me enjoy running very much.
Add to that the fact that it was all but impossible for me to get from Luanda, Angola, Africa to Europe and the USA for the fall marathons I’d signed up for due to Covid-19 related restrictions (It’s funny when countries that send you vaccines as part of an international program don’t recognize them for entry and make you quarantine in hotels for extended periods of time at each stop, making it financially implausible to actually go and run a marathon).
So, I decided to do this complete reset and didn’t run the whole month of August. A friend lent me a bicycle and a Wahoo Kickr to keep my cardio more or less ok. At the same time, I went full out on functional training, physical therapy, shockwave therapy, the works.
Back to the Topo-ST4. I figure that’s what you want to read about instead of my ramblings. The complete running reset I did meant I just did barefoot running and ST-4 running for the first couple of weeks back at it. About 30 minutes of it per session, in order to strengthen my feet, get back in touch with my love for running. My review of a minimalist oriented target audience shoe like the ST-4 might have been very different if I’d done it in the last couple of weeks before calling it quits and taking a break from running. I probably wouldn’t have had the strength or the agility to test and appreciate it properly. Please bear all of this in mind while reading my part of the review. I hope I haven’t bored you to death with my musings.
First Impressions and Fit
Mike P The first thing I look for when I try on a shoe is how the foot bed feels - does it seem to match the contour of my foot and arch? Are there any flat spots (especially under the arch) or do they feel overly contoured? Then.. the toebox- in this case I know with Topo there’s nothing to worry about.
Classic Topo- wider, but not a crazy wide toebox, enough room to move your toes around, but not too much so you’re sliding around. Coupled with the classic Topo midfoot lockdown - all is good. Back to the footbed- there is a distinct, but subtle contouring under the arch. For me this helps to stabilize my foot whereas shoes with less support under the arch can sometimes cause soreness between the arch and the bottom of my ankle. No such issues here.
Joost: The Topo ST-4 felt surprisingly cushioned after going all barefoot for a couple of sessions after a month of no running. This is of course very relative. The fit is like the other Topo shoes I have reviewed and is very well tuned to my wide feet. There’s distinct support under the arch and the toebox is nice and wide, without being sloppy in any way. Midfoot hold is great, and there’s no heel counter to speak of. Zero drop is zero drop, so if you’re not used to running or walking barefoot or in other zero drop shoes, your calves and achilles’ tendons might not thank you at first. Take it easy and alternate with other shoes if you’re in that boat.
Mike P The upper is a simple engineered mesh, with some overlays mainly around the midfoot area. There is no excess or unnecessary material - given the secure fit of the shoe, as well as its flexibility, not much is needed - just to stay out of the way. In that vein, the heel collar is quite minimal, but it does the job of keeping the rear of the shoe secure, nothing more. In looking at the shoe, I did have some concern about the exposed stitching at the top of the heel collar which is also on the inside of the collar near the Achilles. This ended up not being an issue at all for me, but I could see how it could cause irritation for some.
As Mike said, a simple engineered mesh with some overlays. One area of interest is the rubbery toe bumper.
This makes the ST-4 potentially a candidate for trail running. I can definitely see myself using it on light trails where I risk bumping my toes into the odd rock or root.
It’s not made for technical trails or very slippery surfaces, though.
The toebox is nice and wide and I wish more brands made shoes with this more natural foot shape in mind (especially for wide foot runners like myself). Midfoot hold and fit is great, with an Ortholite footbed and nice arch support.
There are a couple of fabric strips going down from either side of the eyelets that provide that excellent hold.
The tongue is padded and that, together with the lacing configuration, won’t cause any hot spots on the top of your foot.
There’s no real heel counter, except for a little more fabric on the inside.
There’s no heel slippage for me.
Topo says the foldable heel makes it easier to fit the shoes in your gym bag, hinting at the fact that they might also make a great gym workout or travel light shoe. I tried running sockless, but got a blister on the outside of my right little toe. If, unlike me, you’re used to sockless running and have a couple of calluses to show for it, you probably won’t have any issues.
Mike P I find the midsole to be a bit of a denser EVA- it is not their more responsive ZipFoam. There is no noticeable spring or bounce, but it does a good job of dampening road harshness just enough. Similar to the upper (as a compliment), I can say that it does the job of not getting in the way. There is no feeling of stabilization or technology directing your foot in any direction. You get back what you put in. An Ortholite insole is included - typically I am not a fan of those, I sometimes feel like it can be a bit of a cheat to make a shoe feel softer than it really is. But in this case, it is of the thinner variety, and seems contoured to match the footbed. Given the denser midsole, I think it’s a good match and don’t mind it.
Again due to the fact that I hadn’t run for a month and done only barefoot running before testing the ST-4, my impressions are probably a little different than they would have been if I’d been running long tempo runs in a pair of FuelCell Elite RC2.
That being said, I found the ST-4 had a decent amount of cushioning, while also having a very good ground feel. There’s not a lot of midsole - 7mm of EVA to be exact - so the shoe is inherently flexible, but since it’s a one piece outsole and 4mm thick so not thin and thus it’s not as flexible as let’s say an old Nike Free or something like that. I think the choice of a classic EVA based midsole is true to the nature of the shoe, a minimalist zero drop shoe without going overboard.
Mike P Outsole is a typical Topo road pattern - good rubber coverage in high wear areas, and foam everywhere else. My previous Fli-Lyte 2’s had a similar outsole and it worked well. In my experience with those as well as other Topo’s, I expect rubber durability to be very good. We have heard from Topo that they have been incorporating a slightly thinner depth of outsole rubber which has also allowed them to broaden rubber coverage (while keeping the same weight or slightly less). This was based on consumer feedback and wear testing. Basically they were hearing that after very large volumes of miles, the rubber was not wearing out.
As Mike wrote, the outsole is typical Topo road and made of a decent rubber applied in all possible high-wear areas on the heel and the forefoot, leaving just the midfoot and the center of the heel with exposed foam. Traction is good, although the rainy season hasn’t started yet, so I haven’t really tested the ST-4 out on wet roads. 4mm of the stuff should also be more than enough to last a very long time.
Mike P The phrase “you get back what you put in” also applies here. On my first run, right out the door I felt like they were a bit flat and “clompy” at my warmup pace. But as I got up to speed they felt much better - the light weight is evident as well as the flexibility - it seems like there’s a sweet spot in terms of cadence and turnover that they push you towards. They definitely feel better at quicker cadences with lighter foot strikes.
I really enjoyed them running around the neighborhood, on sidewalks, taking 90 degree turns at the end of blocks, hopping on and off medians, etc.
After 40 minutes or so, I did feel some fatigue in my lower legs, and had to focus on keeping turnover up. I consider this a good thing, as I’m not used to running zero drop on roads, so as far as I’m concerned - that’s just good training. But it is something to consider if you are unaccustomed to zero-drop- as you’ve heard everywhere else.. ease yourself in.
After doing nothing but pure barefoot sessions, the Topo ST-4 felt like a more cushioned shoe than it actually is to me for the first couple of km. Being zero drop and with a 16mm stack height (including the 5mm ortholite foot bed), they aren’t very forgiving of bad form, so you will need to work on treading light and making your own feet and lower legs do more work than what they’re used to in more worked up shoes. If you do so, they will feel very natural. They are not bouncy at all, so all the work has to come from you, which is actually a good thing, because it makes you stronger as a runner. I could run easily at any pace in the shoes, strides and short sprints included. Needless to say that the ST-4 is very stable.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Mike P: The ST-4 is a really great entry in the natural running category. It is very versatile across varying paces and even terrains - I took them out for a spin on some light/moderate trails and they handled them well. The security of the fit along with the wider forefoot provided good stability, provided the trail is not muddy.
I could see this shoe being a good transition shoe for the zero-drop curious, because the fit is just that good and secure. It would also be a great addition to the quiver of seasoned natural/zero drop runners. Furthermore - this would be a great everyday shoe for any runner. Foot strength is definitely important, so just walking around day-to-day on a shoe with a wider toebox and no drop is a win-win.
Mike P, (9.58/10)
Ride: 9.5 Fit: 10.0 Value: 9.5 Style: 8.0
Ride is excellent within the “natural” category, I personally love the Topo fit, great value due to versatility. The style is kind of plain (subjective).
Joost: If you’re at all interested in a zero drop, minimalist oriented shoe without going all out to sandals or Merrell Vapor Glove style, the Topo ST-4 is definitely worth a try. The typical Topo midfoot hold and wide forefoot is there, coupled with a low to the ground traditional EVA midsole for good proprioception. It is conducive to running with good form and will help you develop strength and stability in your feet and lower legs. The rubber toe bumper and 4mm rubber outsole makes it suitable for fast and light trail running as well, even though it is in the road shoe category. Being a minimalist shoe, they might have shed another couple of grams, but I’m splitting hairs.
I personally like the Topo approach to creating great natural shaped running shoes and their attention to user feedback for the next iteration. If any of the points I made in my review resonate with you, give the ST-4 a whirl.
Joost’s score (9.30/10)
Ride 9/10 (50%), Fit 10/10 (30%), Value 9/10 (15%), Style 9/10 (5%)
Index to all RTR reviews: HERE
Topo Fli-Lyte 4 (RTR Review)
Joost (M9.5 in both) I tested the Fly-lite 4 a while ago and didn’t have as positive an opinion of it as the ST-4 or the Cyclone (RTR Review) I also tested. Both the Cyclone and the ST-4 have a very well defined audience, while the Fly-Lite 4 sits somewhere in the middle. I’m wearing them a lot in my day to day and for the gym, because they are very enjoyable, but I haven’t really run in them a lot since reviewing them. The ST-4 is a more focused shoe and while you can definitely take it to the gym (and I will) because of its stability, for me it’s the better running shoe of the two.
Topo Fli-Lyte 2 (RTR Review)
Mike P (9.5) I really liked my Fli-Lyte 2’s, they were my general mileage road shoe for a while. I’ll leave it to other reviewers to provide comparisons to more recent versions. Fli-Lyte’s are definitely a good pick for those that are “Topo-curious”.
Topo Magnifly 2 (RTR Review)
Mike P (9.5) I found these too heavy and stiff for my taste, but I haven’t tried the newer version. ST-4s are definitely more oriented towards a natural ride - way more flexibility and ground feel. Magnifly may work if you like zero-drop but need or prefer more cushion.
Altra Escalante 1.5 (RTR Review)
Mike P (9.5) I found the Escalante a bit too unsupportive - especially under the arch, also a bit too wide and sloppy feeling in the toebox for my foot. Escalante EGO foam is softer, but ST-4 much better fit, security, and versatility.
Altra Escalante Racer
Mike P (9.0) I prefer the Racer over regular Escalante - the firmer EGO foam is more stable, but the same fit issues apply. My Racers have been relegated to treadmill duty. But frankly the ST-4 is a good ‘mill shoe as well. Escalante also won’t work on trails.
Atreyu (V1) (RTR Review)
Mike P (10.0) Atreyu Base Model has a more traditional fit, with 5mm drop - also lighter weight. Upper security is not as good - I have to cinch down my Atreyu’s pretty tight to get a secure fit. Atreyu’s are less supportive underfoot, I prefer the slight contouring under the arch of the ST-4s, but that would be personal preference.
Joost (M9.5 in both) The Atreyu is a “minimal design” shoe, which doesn’t mean it’s a minimalist shoe. The midsole is a more traditional height and has more drop. The upper is far less structured and also less breathable. They serve different purposes, but the ST-4 is the better built shoe.
Salomon Sonic RA Pro 2 (RTR Review)
Mike P (9.5) Similar in weight, with the RA’s having a slight drop. I found the fit of the RA’s not so great overall, tight and harsh in some spots, loose in others. The RA is more of a speed shoe, if the fit works for you. RA rubber durability was pretty poor. ST- is more versatile.
Altra Superior (RTR Review)
Mike P (9.5) ST-4’s and Superiors feel very similar to me on light (dry) trails. This is due to the fact that Superiors have a bit snugger fit (than other Altras) as well as more underfoot support (than other Altras). Superiors are obviously more terrain and weather (i.e. mud) versatile.
Tested samples were provided at no charge for review purposes. RoadTrail Run has affiliate partnerships and may earn commission on products purchased through affiliate links. These partnerships do not influence our editorial content
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