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Behind the Shoe: Brooks Levitate

Behind the Shoe focuses on the background, story and inspiration of how a running shoe came to life from its inception to its release.

We love our running shoes; they are a part of us. They make us fast, hold us to our fitness goals and their wear and tear a form of pride among runners. Every year we put thousands of miles into our favorite kicks, exploring the outside world and testing our own limits. If you want to know about our most trusted brands, we’ll tell you (and in detail), what it is that makes them so amazing.

But even before we slipped our feet into them, prior to feeling out their uppers, testing their cushioning or discovering their energy returns–someone, somewhere concepted them. Shoemakers, designers, product engineers and the best minds in the industry worked to create these pieces of art that find the balance between comfort and performance; look and feel.

This is Behind the Shoe.

In 2001, after a series of hard knocks from the sporting goods industry, fledgling footwear company Brooks Sports made a strategic decision to only focus on one category within sports retail. Though it had found moderate success with football, basketball and tennis shoes, CEO Jim Weber decided to put all of Brooks’ chips on running.

It was a big risk. At the time, Brooks only had two offerings for runners: the Beast and the Addiction, both stability shoes with a reputation for good support and ample cushioning. But to come back from bankruptcy, a pair of styles for a small subset of the market wouldn’t cut it. Weber knew they needed to offer a comprehensive lineup of shoes for all types of runners. What’s more, it couldn’t just make a lot of running shoes; if it was going all-in on running, it had to make the best on the market.

The brand went underground for a year, building a state-of-the-art lab, recruiting biomechanical experts and conducting material’s research to build the best running shoe possible. It emerged with a full lineup, backed by in-depth biomechanical research. Weber’s gamble paid off: within three years of relaunching as Brooks Running, annual revenue surged from $20 million to $69 million. In 2014, Brooks revenue hit $500 million. Today, Brooks Running is one the leading running shoe brands in the specialty market.

In developing a product line focused on runners, some shoe concepts came more easily than others. The Glycerin, Adrenaline and Ghost styles are the anchors of the brand, with only minor refinements over the years in response to new research and technology. But other shoe concepts proved trickier. Case in point: the Levitate.

Photo Credit: Brooks
Photo Credit: Brooks Running

“Our footwear team began the concept process of the Levitate in 2010,” says Carson Caprara, senior director of footwear product line management. “But it took nine rounds of development and seven rounds of wear testing before it was ready to launch in 2017.”

The idea was to design a shoe with a high-energy return. Creating a sole with a bouncy, springy feel would release the energy straight back to the runner, making for a more enjoyable running experience.

But Caprara admits this was easier said than done. “We discovered we could create a super springy foam, but it didn’t feel great on the run,” shared Caprara. “We changed the formula several times in the Levitate before landing on the perfect combination of energy return and runability.”

Brooks Levitate Specs

11.2 oz (M); 9.9 oz (W)
$120/$150 (Levitate 2)

After nine rounds of development, engineers cracked the code. By using a special thermoplastic polyurethane coating, the midsole’s foam is prohibited from expanding horizontally, returning energy directly back to the runner. The result of this discovery is Brooks’ DNA AMP midsole, an engineered compound that provides exceptional energy return as well as an eye-catching chrome-like finish that looks as good as it feels.

“We set out to create a more amplified experience with the Levitate. Therefore, we pushed for innovation beyond our traditional foam compounds,” says Caprara.

Photo Credit: Brooks Running
Photo Credit: Brooks Running

Because so much work went into its development, it was clear the DNA AMP midsole needed to be the star of the Levitate. The brand paired its new midsole with a no-fuss Fit Knit upper, the line’s first fully-engineered circular knit. The process creates an upper fabric in a seamless tube, as opposed to traditional panels which can chafe or distract from the running experience. At strategic spots in the tube, the knit is tightened or opened to provide structure and breathability where runners need it most.

The Levitate’s release in 2017 was one of the most successful product launches ever for Brooks Running, climbing the ranks of the overall line of shoes rapidly. Currently, the Levitate sits in the top five styles sold by the brand, with its second iteration having hit the market this past spring. Many of Brook’s professional runners, including middle-distance star and new Brooks Beasts recruit Josh Kerr, can be found in a pair of Levitates on big training days.

Brooks knows it could have released the Levitate years before it was perfected, when other running shoe brands were rolling out energy-boosting soles en masse. But to do so would have run counter to the reputation it has worked so hard to earn since its 2001 comeback. It wanted to get the Levitate just right—and judging by the response from runners, that’s exactly what it did.