Erin: When Thomas asked if I was interested in reviewing the Brooks Levitate, I 1) said yes, and 2) immediately went to google the shoe, because I’d never heard of it. Turns out that’s because it’s a brand new model, and I didn’t have to look far to find a lot of hype about it online.
According to the infographics and short video on the Brooks website, this shoe has spent two and a half years in development and has undergone seven rounds of wear testing, with the goal of creating a shoe that Brooks claims provides the most energy return of “leading performance running shoes” due to the Levitate’s “groundbreaking” DNA AMP midsole. And yes, those are scare quotes, in both the first and second instances.
I was skeptical of this claim, because have you heard of the Nike Vapor Fly 4%? Anyhow, it turns out that Brooks didn’t include that shoe in the comparison because the Levitate is designed for the beginning runner or running enthusiast, while the Vapor Fly was created to help elite marathoners break 2 hours. Fair enough.
Austin: Infinite energy. That’s the thrust behind the newest running shoe from Brooks. The Levitate, which will compete against similar models that incorporate thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) in the midsole, aims to provide the most energy return mile after mile. Speaking of which, “energy return” is an oft-repeated phrase in 2017. How is energy return measured though? Martyn Shorten, a biomechanics expert for the Runner’s World shoe lab, uses a device to compress midsoles and observe what percentage of energy is returned. Shoes primarily composed of EVA foams, for instance, return 50-60%; newer midsole foams are returning 70+.
New foams feel nice too. “These materials give instant gratification. There is no question they feel fantastic at first try-on,” says Simon Bartold, a podiatrist, biomechanical expert, and consultant for Salomon. Given the remarkable success of the Ghost 10 and the uncanny ability of Brooks models to repeatedly feel stellar from a step-in comfort standpoint, will the Levitate follow this trajectory as a model that has staying power for years to come with subsequent updates? Or will it sink back to earth moments after liftoff?
Erin: Look, I’ll run in the ugliest shoe around if I like the way it feels (ahem, New Balance 890v1-3), but I do appreciate a good-looking running shoe, and aside from the rather conspicuous midsole, I find the Levitate aesthetically pleasing. I love the bright turquoise color and the seamless knit upper. The heel collar is a bit, uh, voluminous, but has a smooth, seamless construction that makes the shoe pretty comfortable to run in sockless, if you’re into that sort of thing. They’re a little shallow and narrow in the toe box compared to what I’m used to, but the lack of overlays makes them flexible enough that it isn’t bothersome. The outsole has this etched arrow point design that looks cool, and, as Thomas noted, is a helpful reminder in case you forget what direction to go in.
Austin: With no previous version to use for comparative analysis, the Levitate is unique in that all accolades and criticisms are a first. Like the Ghost and Glycerin, step-in comfort for the Levitate is amazing. According to Brooks, seven rounds of wear testing account for this plush feel. The upper employs Fit Knit, a material that expands while the feet are in motion. Fit Knit, at least to me, feels similar to the Altra Escalante upper, which is an engineered knit mesh. Having completed multiple runs in both models, the Levitate provided a more secure fit (my feet slide a touch in the Escalante).
Plush is the ideal adjective to describe the Levitate upper. Between the Fit Knit, tongue, laces, and heel collar, comfort seeps out every eyelet and seam. The Fit Knit upper provides a robust toe box while the midfoot fit is secure without feeling sloppy. Sizing is accurate, and the ride is firm – which brings me to the most pressing question surrounding the Levitate. Will the midsole be praised or scorned?
I’m leaving it here, with a few caveats to be unpacked shortly.
For cushioning, the Levitate uses DNA AMP, created in partnership with BASF (the company behind Boost for Adidas and EVERUN for Saucony). A polyurethane base is wrapped in a TPU shell to send energy back up to the feet. DNA AMP is a firm midsole, much more so than the Ghost or Glycerin, and it is also a great segue for critiquing the Levitate.
Erin: I hesitate to list this stuff under “bad” because in general, I feel pretty meh about the Brooks Levitate. When I first took them out of the box, I couldn’t believe how heavy they felt, and most of that weight seems to be concentrated in the heel area. At 9.7 ounces, this is much heavier than anything I’m used to running in. Probably the closest shoe I have is the Pegasus 33, which is still over an ounce lighter, at 8.6 ounces. Based on the bulky appearance of the midsole, I was surprised to find that the Levitate has an 8 mm drop; I would have guessed 10-12 mm.
Let’s address this “energy return” business. I’ve put about 75 miles on this shoe, and I can’t say that I felt any benefit at all, either in the form of enhanced performance or reduced fatigue. Brooks claims a 72% energy return due to the DNA AMP midsole, which is made of PU rather than EVA and is, therefore, heavier, but also easier to compress. The shoe’s designers felt that the compressive features of PU and the “springiness” provided would outweigh (heh) any advantages associated with a lighter midsole material. But in general, every 100 grams of added weight per shoe increases the metabolic cost of running by 1%, so I’ll take a lighter shoe any day.
Austin: While the Levitate upper is superb, I’ve yet to reach this conclusion for the midsole based on 1) weight and 2) energy return. The Levitate is heavy (13.1 ounces in my size 12), and it felt heavy every run. I didn’t have much sense of the energy return either. It’s there because as Martyn Shorten reminded us earlier, all running shoes return some percentage. But it was less than I expected. Is this a consequence of the weight? I have my suspicions. The Levitate felt more responsive at faster efforts (e.g., a 7:00-mile pace), but for the majority of my miles at an easier effort, I wasn’t wowed at the responsiveness.
Erin: I didn’t love the Levitate, but I didn’t hate it. I’ll likely rotate it in with my Pegasus for longer road runs. I think the marketing of this shoe is a little confusing because the purported energy return benefits and general hype combined with the (in my opinion) rather steep price point of $150 had me under the impression that this was more of a performance shoe, and that it certainly is not.
Austin: 50 miles in with the Brooks Levitate, I’ve yet to decide whether I’m amazed or perplexed. As of this writing, I’m still perplexed as I continue to reconcile such a fabulous upper and a favorable drop (8 millimeters) with the enigmatic DNA AMP. The midsole is too bulky for my liking. A recent Running Warehouse First Look of the Levitate concluded their assessment with this remark: “While the shoe weighs in a little on the heavy side for a daily trainer, we expect the shoe to feel quite a bit lighter due to the overly responsive ride.”
In contrast to the conclusion by Running Warehouse, I didn’t feel the Levitate lighter based on the ride, nor did it feel overly responsive. That said, where should the Levitate fall in the rotation? I’d relegate it to long runs based on weight alone, but others may find it lively enough for workouts or even races. I do hope that Brooks introduces Fit Knit for other models in the future, but I’ll stick with DNA or Super DNA and forego the DNA AMP – at least for now. I wasn’t sinking in my runs with the Levitate, but I wasn’t soaring either. What’s in between sinking and soaring? Flying, perhaps? Floating? Like a Ghost.