From time to time, we say things like, ‘ the so and so brand is targeting the casual consumer instead of the serious runner.’ This usually happens when the shoe being reviewed is from one of the big two brands – adidas and Nike.
But there’s a very good reason why shoe giants target the casual sportswear market. This segment is huge, dwarfing other performance categories such as running footwear. Without lifestyle products in its portfolio, brands like adidas or Nike would never be the giants they are today.
This statement isn’t an opinion – it is based on facts. Adidas doesn’t publicly report its revenues by category, but Nike does. Last year, a third of its entire revenue (see page 75) came from ‘Sportswear’, which is Nike-speak for athleisure.
Nike running is only half the size of the Sportswear business. And this is when running also includes a lot of products which, for all practical purposes, should be labelled as Sportswear.
So what would happen if a brand did nothing else but design the entire product line around performance running (and walking) in mind?
Adopting the said strategy would result in a brand such as Brooks or Saucony.
Brooks is a small big brand. Small, because it’s not even a billion dollars in annual revenue. It’s big, because Berkshire Hathaway’s 2017 revenue was a quarter of a trillion dollars; Berkshire also happens to own the Brooks brand.
One has to give Brooks credit for sticking to its running only focus, despite having Berkshire’s financial muscle-power to (potentially) help it foray into other categories whenever it desires.
And kudos to Berkshire for letting Brooks chart its own destiny instead of trying to extract quick returns on their investment.
Because of its product strategy, Brooks does an excellent job of product differentiation and tiering. Another area where Brooks scores are the quality of materials used on its running shoes.
Till September 2017, Brooks did not have any shoe priced below $100. This gave Brooks freedom to use a premium material package regardless of the product’s place in the pricing hierarchy. However, the Seattle-based shoe brand broke its unwritten $100 MSRP rule last year when they introduced the $85 Anthem – a Pure series inspired trainer.
The Brooks assortment is fairly edited to begin with. Runners are familiar with some of the long-continuing models which represent their respective categories and price points. The Glycerin is the plush neutral trainer with the lower-priced Ghost below it.
Among others, the ‘Pure’ series (Pureflow and Cadence) is a remnant from the heyday of minimalist/barefoot running.
The Brooks Launch 5 is stand-alone shoe which offers a firm and lightweight ride experience suited for tempo runs. The Revel 2 is similar to the Launch except for its slightly higher weight, an additional 2 mm midsole offset, and a knit upper.
Brooks has plenty of supportive trainers, both in a traditional (medially posted) and a neutral guise. The Dyad 10 and the Transcend 5 are marketed as support shoes but they lack a medial post. On the other hand, the Beast, Adrenaline and the Ravenna represent the traditional stability category.
Can the brand’s product assortment be improved? Absolutely.
For example, Brooks lacks a credible lightweight trainer and a road racer. Brands like adidas, Asics, and New Balance have addressed this need well with the adizero Boston, Dynaflyte/DS Trainer, and the Zante respectively.
In the past, Brooks had the excellent combination of the lightweight T7 racer and the ST5 trainer. Today, you have the Hyperion and the Asteria, but this category still feels under-represented. Besides, these models haven’t been updated in a long time.
Nonetheless, Brooks has made excellent progress in other categories over the past 18 months. There’s a slew of new models on two brand-new cushioning platforms. The Levitate’s ‘DNA AMP’ is based on a sealed Polyurethane foam design whereas the ‘DNA Loft’ appears to be a synthetic rubber blend.
The DNA AMP has its failings, though. The material is based on foamed Polyurethane. This means that over time, the PU foam is prone to breaking down – we’ve comes across instances of the DNA AMP midsole splitting into halves. Even our dissected midsole discolored to a pale yellow within a few months.
The DNA AMP is also stiff and heavy. On the other hand, the ‘DNA Loft’ foam is all that the AMP isn’t.
The Glycerin 16 and Ghost 11 use the DNA Loft foam, and so does the Adrenaline 19. The cushioning quality is deep, yet firm and weigh less than the AMP. The Loft is certainly an upgrade over the existing DNA foam.
While Brooks is slowly getting rid of layered overlays in favor of knit uppers, it maintains a fine balance between minimalism and cosmetic details.
The Glycerin and Ghost combine a knit upper with visual enhancements. Most of the details are functional too. The Glycerin’s laminated midfoot adds visual depth in addition to acting as a support feature. On the Ghost, the side logos help streamline the upper shape.
In short, we like what Brooks is doing. There are some product gaps, but the brand has been consistent with respect to the pace of innovation and the usage of premium materials.
Here’s a curated list of Brooks running shoes which we believe to be the best representatives of their category.
1) Neutral cushioning: Brooks Glycerin 16
This premium neutral cushioning shoe gets a major upgrade for 2018. The midsole is made of full-length ‘DNA Loft’ foam, a compound which feels like a synthetic rubber blend.
The Glycerin’s forte was never softness but smoothness – and that’s the brief which the 2018 model also sticks to. The thick midsole is topped with a plush insole; the DNA loft is on the firmer side of neutral cushioning. This combination results in a cushioned and supportive ride which is perfect for daily training runs or long-distance races.
The engineered mesh upper is plush, layered, and full of cosmetic details. Unlike the past versions of the Glycerin, the upper now has a full inner sleeve instead of a gusset. The plush upper fits warmer and snugger than before but dials up the interior smoothness.
2) Neutral cushioning: Brooks Ghost 11
Forefoot strikers will be surprised to discover that the Ghost is softer under the forefoot than the Glycerin. Unlike the more expensive model, the Ghost 11 mostly uses an EVA foam blend which is softer than the DNA Loft. Only the outer heel crash pad is made of the firmer LOFT foam.
The Ghost is a great alternative to the Glycerin if you’re looking for a lighter daily neutral trainer which costs less. While the upper doesn’t have an inner sleeve, the interiors feel plush and smooth. The amount of space is just right, and the optional widths come to your rescue if you are stuck in a tight spot.
A waterproof and winterized Ghost 11 GTX (Gore-Tex) version is also available for a $30 upcharge over the regular Ghost.
3) Firm and lightweight neutral trainer: Brooks Launch 5
We gave high marks to the Launch in our review for its firm and fast ride. Don’t treat this shoe as a lighter Ghost; instead, use the Launch’s firm ride manners to speed up your pace while keeping your foot insulated from the impact forces.
Its entry-level price isn’t accompanied by any cost-cutting. The Launch uses premium materials, and the result is a smooth fitting upper and a comfortable ride.
4) Super stability: Brooks Beast 18
The Beast series is updated biennially. This model has changed significantly over the years; the 2018 version is perhaps its most drastic evolution yet. A telling sign is a huge improvement in forefoot space. Unlike the ’14 and ’16 models, the Brooks Beast ’18 features a spacious interior. And Brooks also retails two additional widths.
The Beast 18 isn’t the stability gold-standard the Beast 14 was, but it is still an extremely stable shoe. The removable insole resembles an aftermarket orthoses and provides a best-in-class cushioning for a stock insole.
Stability is delivered by the multi-density midsole which has a humongous medial post along with a plastic half-shank. The ultra-wide outsole footprint also creates a supportive foundation for the foot to rest on.
If the Beast 18 is too much of a shoe for your liking, then the less expensive Addiction 13 bridges the gap between the Beast and the Adrenaline.
5) Motion-control/stability: Brooks Adrenaline GTS 19
We’ve been saying for a long time that traditional stability shoes with a medial-post are functionally unnecessary. Huge advancements in midsole foams have made most shoes inherently supportive.
Brooks was the first brand to step outside the traditional stability shoe boundaries when it introduced the Transcend. And guess what – the Adrenaline GTS 19 marks the beginning of a new chapter by adopting Transcend’s ‘Guide rails’.
The Adrenaline no longer has a medial-post and relies completely on the side midsole rails. So the new model is more ‘supportive-neutral’ than conventional stability. The lower midsole is similar to the Ghost 11’s design but a mite firmer. A DNA Loft crash pad is integrated into an EVA-based midsole.
The upper is comfortable – as it always has been. The insides are smooth and fit securely with a just-right amount of space.
If you are looking for a shoe with a medial-post, then we suggest the Brooks Defyance 10 or the previous generation Adrenaline 18.
6) Supportive neutral trainer: Brooks Transcend 5
When we reviewed the first Transcend four years ago, the new shoe was a curious outlier. It did not fit into the (then) established categories of stability or neutral; it appeared to have a foot on both sides of the line.
In 2018, the Transcend 5 feels right at home. Traditional motion-control shoes are soon going to be a thing of the past, and the Transcend, with its elevated Guide rails is the industry North star for the supportive-neutral trend.
There’s plenty of support owing to the exaggerated midsole sidewalls, the wide outsole footprint, and the plush, yet snug fitting upper. At the same time, a thick midsole made of EVA-based DNA foam keeps things padded.
Sadly, there’re no widths. If that’s a concern, try the Brooks Dyad 10 – which is another supportive-neutral shoe with a wider upper and optional widths.
7) Mild stability: Brooks Ravenna 9
The Ravenna is halfway between the Adrenaline GTS 19 and the Launch 5. A pronounced sense of motion-control doesn’t appeal to everyone, and that’s the target market for the Ravenna. The cushioned midsole only has a hint of support by way of a barely noticeable medial post.
The Ravenna also offers a lot for its $110 MSRP. If a smooth fitting upper with quality materials and a multi-density midsole isn’t value for money, what is? Available in two widths.
8) Lightweight racer: Brooks Hyperion
There aren’t many lightweight trainers/racers in Brooks’s current line-up; the other one is the Asteria with its small medial posting. To be honest, the Hyperion falls short of the standards set by the ST5 and the T7.
So for a Brooks, is it the best lightweight trainer/racer at the moment? Yes. But your needs are better served by shoes from other brands. Buy the New Balance 1400V6 if you do not have to stick to Brooks.
9) All-around trail running: Brooks Cascadia 13
The Cascade is a well-built trail shoe with superior grip and a versatile character. The heavy-duty mesh and rubber overlays on the gusseted upper keep the debris out. The upper is also reinforced with a synthetic mudguard and toe-box which prevents slush from sticking to the upper edge.
The forefoot has a rock plate between the lugged outsole and the midfoot. The foam midsole and the stability wedges deliver cushioning and support for the longer trail miles.
And if you plan to wear gaiters with the shoe, there’s a velcro loop over the heel which keeps it locked in place. A waterproof Cascadia 13 GTX (Gore-Tex) is available for $30 more.