I bought the Topo Athletics ST-4 because I’m searching for the perfect alternative to the Altra Escalante 2.5. Many miss the soft, flexible sole of the Escalante and the highly forgiving upper.
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Coming in with 16mm of stack height, zero-drop, and a men’s US9 weight of 7.3 oz (207g), the specs of the Topo Athletics ST-4 are a perfect fit.
It seems like Topo have created a shoe that crosses lines between a “high cushioned barefoot” shoe and a “low cushioned conventional” shoe, meaning it fits many markets. And it could serve as a gym shoe if cushion is your thing (I’d love to convince you to be barefoot in the gym, though).
In this post, I’ll run through the shoe’s fit, feel, and durability and help you decide if it’s the next shoe you should be lacing up.
So let’s jump into the fit!
If you’ve worn other zero-drop shoes like Altra in the past, you’ll have a good idea of how the ST-4 fits.
Wide in the forefoot, fitted in the midfoot, and forgiving in the heel.
The toe box is plenty wide enough to fit most foot types. Taking a bird’s eye view of the ST-4 highlights the width of the toebox, minimal taper around the big toe, and the (generally speaking) more square-than-conventionally-shaped shoes. These attributes mean that 95% of foot types will fit the toebox with no issues.
There is some space above the toes to wiggle around. If there’s one thing about the Altra Escalante’s I’m not a fan of, it’s the depth in the toe box. Granted, I have a relatively bulbous big toe, but I don’t like the constriction. I found the ST-4 to be a little more forgiving, and my toes had a little room to move up and down without feeling constricted. Still, it’s not at the level of Xero Shoes, though.
The heel could use a little more work. It could just be me, but I found the heel to be a little swimmy. The heel cup has no structure and is made of wetsuit-like material. Usually, an unstructured heel works well for me, but this time the collar just didn’t wrap around and lock me in a place like I’d want to. The feeling didn’t translate into any problems during a run, but I can’t say it was perfect. The design would fit someone with a slightly larger ankle or broader heel.
The inside ankle collar sits too high. I first tried the shoes on without socks and immediately noticed the inside ankle collars rubbing against my bone. Luckily, because the material is soft, I never felt this when running or wearing socks, but you should be aware of it if you’re sensitive in that area.
A well-fitted midfoot makes up for the loose heel. Because the forefoot is roomy and the heel is a little loose, the midfoot needed to provide a tight lockdown. This is an area that I would compare to the Escalante. As someone with a wider midfoot, my foot spilled over the outside of the shoe a little, as I do in most shoes, but the materials are soft enough not to cause any discomfort.
The tongue is short but well-padded. There’s little to complain about with the tongue. There’s enough padding to avoid lacing discomfort, and although it sits a little short, I had no issues with the tongue moving out of place.
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Here’s the section that’ll make or break the shoe for you.
At least, it did for me.
I love the front of the shoe, but it starts to disappoint when looking toward the midfoot and heel.
But let’s start with the positive.
16mm of softer cushion is the sweet spot. I’ve had this feeling with the Escalante 2 and 2.5. Soft, but not too high-cushioned, where you can’t feel the ground. I think this is where the Escalante 3 has been a letdown for many. When I planted my foot, I could feel a little give which didn’t exactly bounce back, so I wouldn’t call them responsive, but for me, they are perfect for long, easy runs (as a barefoot runner). For others, they’ll suit shorter distances or as a transition shoe from a conventional shoe brand.
The strategically placed overlays stop the foot from falling over the side of the shoe. With softer cushioned shoes, you can often run into lateral stability issues. Again, if you’ve ever run in the Escalante 2, you’ll know what I mean. Turn a corner too sharp, and you’ll feel like your foot is slipping over the side of the shoe. The ST-4 doesn’t have this issue because the thicker overlays add a structure to the upper, locking your foot down nicely.
Sorry, here come the negatives.
Arch support….. seriously. The conventional shoe industry has no issue with arch support in shoes. But in the barefoot world, arch support is a no-no. Your arch has a specific purpose in the running gait. It should be trained to take the load upon landing and act as a spring upon take off. While the support is minimal, and I technically only felt it when walking, it’s there. The design flies in the face of the original Topo designs, where barefoot was king, so why the change?
There’s even support on the outside of the shoe! Maybe this is a consequence of my midfoot being a little wider, but I could feel a raised area towards the outside of my foot. So now we have raised sites around the arch and outside the foot. One would argue that this stops the foot from collapsing over the sides of the shoe, but I would argue that the base isn’t broad enough in that case. This all added to an odd feeling when walking around.
Again, it’s not that I feel these issues when running, but it’s likely having an effect when moving through my gait. If I use these shoes continuously, in the long term, my biomechanics may become used to the “support,” and my foot’s muscles could weaken. It’s a theory, but I wouldn’t chance it.
That loose heel translates into some lateral slipping on corners. Because my heel never sat in the heel perfectly, I found that I was sliding a little in the rear of the foot on corners. That wasn’t such an issue on the roads because I never cut corners too sharply. But I imagine this would be a concern for someone doing CrossFit or any other sport requiring quick direction changes.
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You’ll see the ST-4 go far as long as the midsole foam holds up!
A rubber outsole covers all the high-wear areas of the shoe. From the outside heel to the forefoot, there’s a 3-4mm of rubber that strikes a balance between lightweight, durability, and grip. The exposed foam areas are unlikely to see much wear unless your running gait is extreme.
The upper is composed of plastic-like mesh with well-placed overlays. The overlays aren’t heavyweight and are strategically placed around the shoe. I’m happy to see them line around the upper, which lessens the chance of breaking out the side of the shoe.
The neoprene-like heel is unique and will reduce wear in the heel. I did mention I had slight heel slippage, but with the material used, I don’t think that’ll translate to excessive wear. It’s an interesting choice, but it seems like it’ll work out.
As always, when you add cushion to a shoe, there is a possibility of breakdown. Because the foam is a little soft, I worry it’ll pack down over time, causing deformities. In the end, it’ll feel lifeless when the bounce has gone. This is usually the issue with any soft, bouncy shoes. So if you’re a heavier runner, I’d suggest looking at the Altra Escalante instead.
And that’s it! I can’t think of much that could fail with the ST-4.
If only Topo had removed the arch support. I would love this shoe.
Fun, and bouncy, with a perfect balance between comfort and ground feel.
So who is this shoe for?
- If you have bought the Escalante 3 and drastically miss the soft cushion of the Escalante 2/2.5
- Give the Topo ST-4 a try
- If you’re a barefoot runner who wants some cushion for 1-2 runs a week.
- Give the Topo ST-4 a try.
- If you want to transition to barefoot shoes and you want a transition shoe, AND the Escalante doesn’t work
- Give the Topo ST-4 a try.
- For all other cases
- Buy the Escalante 3……