In today’s post, we’re going to be reviewing 9 best energy return running shoes for women and men in 2021.
Running shoe companies introduced new foams to improve energy return, which supposed to improve your ability to run more efficiently.
Who wouldn’t want that? With energy return running shoes, you can actually run better, and Nike has actually proved it.
Let’s dive right into it…
Best Energy Return Running Shoes
Brooks Levitate 2
Apparently, Brooks spent 7 years trying to figure out the midsole of the Levitate. Brooks actually partnered up with BASF, a huge chemical company, and they really designed the Levitate to be a great energy return and speed running shoe.
The Brooks Levitate 2 hasn’t really changed up that much, but luckily for you, it has been upgraded the way you would want it to.
This is one of the best running shoes that has an 8mm heel-to-toe drop. Brooks have been marketing the Levitate 2 as an “energizing shoe”
What they essentially mean by that is that it’s giving you quite a bit of return as you’re putting your foot down during the run.
Starting off with the midsole, you have the Brooks DNA AMP. DNA AMP has been by far Brooks’ best energy return material that they’ve ever used.
This foam is all based around giving the runner quite a bit of return as they run.
Can you really feel that energy return? Yes.
One thing I would say is you get more benefit the faster you’re going. So, if you are just going out for a steady jog, you can’t feel the energy quite as much as you are hammering a 20-minute 5k, for example.
So, I guess the Levitate is better if you’re a slightly faster more competitive runner.
The ride is pretty much the same as before. The shoe has a firm yet cushioned balance, and once you get going, it can hold down some faster pacing.
But what it also holds is some weight. The Levitate is definitely heavier than many shoes out there.
But even then, I feel like it’s a great midsole that still has great cushioning and response.
The outsole seems almost unchanged. It has a full sticky rubber layout that still works well on just about any road like surface.
The shoe doesn’t flex too much if you prefer a bit more flexing in your shoes, but it isn’t a deal-breaker.
It is durable and it works really well.
This is the only major change from the Levitate 1. When I first saw the Levitate 2’s upper design, I thought it was kind of risky to go into that full knit type setup. But the first Levitate had a knit upper and it was pretty good and so is the Levitate 2.
So, maybe having that knitted heel collar would just add some more flair to the shoe and it does.
While the upper is comfortable on foot and initially has a great fit, it isn’t so great when your heels are slipping in and out of the shoes.
It’s like the heel collar and the upper has so much stretch to it that the weight of the shoes just pulls it down whenever you try to pick up the pace.
To fix the issue, you just go down sizes and I guess it would help a little bit. Again, at slower paces, it really isn’t noticeable.
The Levitate 2 could be a full-on workhorse shoe for those who like a responsive cushion ride. Again, I really only noticed the slipping at faster paces.
But of course, not everyone is trying to go fast in such a heavy shoe and every shoe has its purpose.
Brooks have designed the outsole with this arrow point rubber system. In terms of practicality, the outsole grips very well on most road surfaces.
If you had some woodland area, I’d be fairly confident to say that the Brooks Levitate 2 would handle it fairly well as long as it’s not wet conditions.
Overall, the Levitate is a very pleasant shoe to run in. I would say that the real emphasis is on the energy return the DNA AMP provides.
You can feel the energy return, but it probably would benefit your faster mid to forefoot runner than your slower heel striking jog around the park. You may not be experiencing the energizing effect quite as much.
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Saucony Liberty ISO 2
The shoe offers a 19-millimeter forefoot, a 4-millimeter heel-to-toe drop, which makes it one of the best low drop running shoes.
A responsive performance trainer with a hint of support, the all-new Saucony Liberty ISO 2 is built to provide runners with a quick and versatile option for anything from up-tempo runs to daily training.
Everything from the fit to the ride, the Liberty feels really good on normal runs and runs where you’re dropping the pace.
Built as a more stable alternative to the popular Freedom ISO, the Liberty ISO 2 offers a responsive full-length EVERUN midsole along with a Guidance Frame to offer a little extra support for mild overpronators.
The EVERUN midsole with the flexibility and support is going to provide just what you need to get through the longer miles.
If you’re doing 25 or 30 miles on the road, the midsole is going to provide all the extra bounce that you need so that your legs stay a little bit fresh at the end of a long run.
The Liberty has got great bounce at the beginning of the run and at the end of the run. It feels really nice underfoot when you want to drop the pace and get your legs moving.
The Liberty ISO can also be great for neutral runners, but this posting can be really helpful at the end of a run when your legs are tired and your ankles start to roll inwards.
Paired with a soft and thin ISOFIT upper, the Liberty ISO delivers fantastic comfort built to keep your feet snug and secure when you decide to pick up the pace.
The ISO fit upper has a truly sock-like feel and you’ll almost not even feel like you have to lace the shoe when you put it on. It’s that snug but it doesn’t pinch at all.
All in all, the Liberty ISO 2 has got a great underfoot feel for daily runs on the roads or when dropping the pace and it’s got an incredibly comfortable upper that feels truly sock-like.
So, for the runners seeking a highly responsive performance trainer with fantastic comfort and energy return and a hint of support, look no further than the Saucony Liberty ISO.
Liberty ISO vs Freedom ISO
Runners who have more of a neutral gait would normally gravitate towards a shoe like the Saucony Freedom, but I found that the hint of stability that the Liberty provides isn’t extremely noticeable and actually seems to be really beneficial near the end of those longer runs.
You’ll also really enjoy that responsive underfoot feel. The Liberty is slightly firmer but overall, it still has that soft springy ride that feels great on the roads.
I’d probably use it more for my up-tempo runs, but it still has plenty of protection to handle my daily training.
The upper of the Liberty ISO also really stands out. It feels a little more structured than the Freedom ISO.
In the midfoot, it’s got a little tighter weave that feels great, and then in the heel, it’s just got a little more structure that’s going to make you feel a little more confident later in the runs.
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Under Armour HOVR Machina
The Machina is Under Armour’s premium neutral cushion running shoe.
It’s got an 8-millimeter drop. The cushion in this shoe is still Under Armour Hovr similar to the Infinite. However, the Infinite has a full cage.
So, Under Armour removed part of the caging so that the shoe could be a little bit lighter. The other addition is that they actually put more Hovr into this shoe, 20% more than the other versions.
Also, we have a Pebax plate which you can see through the outsole. Pebax is a blend of plastic and in this Machina, it’s in the midfoot and it extends into the forefoot.
Pebax doesn’t give you the same spring-like effect that you might find in a carbon fiber plated racing shoe, but in the Machina, it does have a little bit of a propulsive feel and it does keep the shoe very stable.
Another thing that’s slightly different about this Under Armour shoe is that the carbon plate is actually two-pronged.
So, instead of one full plate of carbon going from heel to toe, there are two pieces that fit together and prongs that meet by your front toe.
This allows the foot to move a little bit more freely instead of controlling your motion through your entire stride.
The upper is still an engineered mesh and the outsole is a full plate of rubber, which allows for better traction, which I think is another bonus to this shoe because some of the other racing flats can skimp a little bit on the outsole so that you get something lighter.
As in a lot of other Under Armour running shoes, the Machina has a very padded heel collar and tongue. In fact, the whole upper has got layers of foam in there.
For some people, it might feel too much on the upper, but ride-wise, it’s very plush and a long-distance high-mileage cruiser.
The tongue has got some lacing loops to keep the laces in place and the tongue sits very neatly around the foot and doesn’t move at all.
Like other Under Armour shoes, the Machina is fully connected and offers you step-by-step coaching as well as post-run analysis.
If you use the Map My Run App on your phone as you run, the Machina does Bluetooth connect to that to give you feedback on cadence, stride length, speed, distance, and all that kind of stuff.
So, if you’re someone who hasn’t joined a team yet but you’re still looking for some feedback, this is a great option which can give you both of those things without the commitment of meeting people or having a schedule.
The cushioning in this shoe comes from the Under Armour Hovr material and we’ve got a full midsole section of this material and it’s encased in the Energy Web.
The Energy Web hopes to control kind of lateral distortion and keep the energy return in a vertical manner to give it a nice propulsive feel and a responsive toe-off.
So, if you’re looking for an introductory carbon plated shoe, this is a great place to start. Or, if you’re looking for a trainer to get you through your fastest workouts, this is also an awesome option.
Last but not least, the Machina is one of these ethical and sustainable running shoes.
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Nike React Infinity Run
The Infinity is an everyday trainer that has a 9-millimeter drop. It is a stability shoe but it’s one that they say that neutral runners can wear, as well.
Nike has got a Flyknit upper which has this nice mesh that’s really soft and breathable. It’s got a really thin stretchy tongue that’s attached to the rest of the shoe.
One thing that I did notice is that most running shoes have between like five or six eyelets, but the Infinity Run only has four on each side. So, you don’t have quite as many options when it comes to securing the shoe as you’re lacing it up.
Related: Nike Shoe Technologies Explained
This shoe has 24% more React foam in it than any other shoe in the Nike React line, which gives it that nice cushy responsive feel.
All of that really gives you a little bit more protection as you’re running. The width of the bottom in particular gives you a more inherently stable base, which is one way that it helps reduce that side-to-side oscillation as you’re running.
Compared to the other shoes in the Nike React, the Infinity Run definitely feels like it’s more responsive and a little bit more springy and more cushioned in general.
One of the things I really like about this Flyknit upper is it has this bootie construction so it’s really soft.
It’s also got this nice little pull tab so it makes it really easy and comfortable to get in on and off and you might not even have to untie your shoes at all, which is a no-no, but I like to do that a lot of the time.
Ride & Performance
You may notice that it’s got this rocker shape which helps give you a smoother transition from heel to toe.
The way that it’s designed promotes more of a forward midfoot or forefoot landing. This shoe has a really nice snappy feel on the run and the shape of the shoe does promote a slight forward lean.
It helps guide you to land a little bit more on your forefoot.
The outsole has a really nice sticky rubber which is pretty grippy when you run on wet roads.
One of the things that they also do in order to make the shoe more stable is that they’ve got this plastic collar just over the midsole that wraps all the way around the shoe.
So, for other stability shoes that you might have tried, you probably experienced just a medial posting. This is also one of the reasons why somebody who doesn’t typically wear a stability shoe or who isn’t typically an overpronator can wear this shoe comfortably because it’s not just for that inner movement of overpronation.
All of us tend to get a little bit of a sloppier form as we run and as we fatigue. So, this is the type of shoe that supposedly can help keep you running in a more straightforward motion as you get tired.
When you try these shoes for the first time, especially if you’re more of a flat-footed runner, you might feel this little plastic piece kind of digging into your arch.
But once you start running, you probably wouldn’t feel that at all. So, if you try these shoes and you notice that at first, make sure that you run in them as well so that you can give them a fair chance.
… which brings us to my top three favorite things about the Infinity Run.
- The wider fit. I like that it’s a little bit wider and it actually feels comfortable and more stable.
- The nice energetic React foam.
- It seems to promote that nice forward motion and I don’t feel like I’m quite as wobbly in them.
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This is a brand new shoe of Swiss precision engineering from the good folks at On Running.
For nearly 9 years, On have been revolutionizing the world of running soles with their innovative CloudTec technology.
But with this CloudStratus, they have raised that already high bar yet further still because they have literally doubled up the tech to create a plush and comfortable experience for the runner.
On first impressions, it’s clear that this is a really impressive looking pair of shoes. They certainly grabbed my attention, that’s for sure.
At first glance, it’s clear that they aren’t your standard, high mileage, heavy-duty trainer with a little bit of stability thrown into the mix.
And that in the large part is due to this rather striking outsole which is made up of not one, but two distinct layers.
How does this technology work?
On call this technology their dual sequential cushioning system, which is essentially two distinct layers of their CloudTec technology which works in sync to provide a smooth and comfortable feel.
And what happens is first, this lower layer of the hollow pods, called Clouds, cushion under every foot strike by collapsing and then helping the runner propel forward.
And then the second upper layer comes in to absorb any extra residual impact and add some further propulsion, too.
So, essentially it is just a really comfy landing point in the heel and the midfoot and maintaining a firm platform through to the forefoot so you can have a firm push-off.
As On say themselves, it is running on clouds just taken to a whole new level.
Interestingly, this is the first time that On have connected together all these pods in their forefoot, which On themselves say gives an even greater performance.
Now, what this adapted structure does is it increases the surface area and it allows for a more stable toe-off on each stride.
It distributes the pressure better and it also allows this Speedboard in the middle to improve the explosive motion of the shoe.
Aside from this really eye-catching orange colorway, there are a few key features of this CloudStratus.
The first thing that I noticed is this really clever asymmetrical design. What On are driving at here is that this allows the shoe to flex where the foot is flexing, too.
Secondly, the lacing system creates a star shape pattern or configuration which snugs up over the top of the foot while at the same time allowing for a nice and open toe box.
On also use this lacing structure on their CloudFlyer shoe, too.
Something that I haven’t come across before is that On are offering not one, but two eyelet options through the upper for that extra personalization option.
This means that on this shoe, it isn’t just this outsole that On are doubling up their technology on but these eyelets, too.
Moving into the inside of the shoe, a little trick that On have implemented on their insole is to give it a ribbed effect under your medial arch providing some proprioceptive feedback to subconsciously stabilize your foot strike.
It’s a clever idea because it doesn’t add any extra weight, so it’s certainly worth a try.
Like I said, I think these are a great looking pair of shoes and not just your standard run-of-the-mill offering at all.
Plus, it’s really clear when you take a closer look at them. A lot of research and development has gone into making such an innovative pair of running shoes, which is really obvious when you start taking a closer look at the finer details around about the shoe.
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Saucony Ride 13
This is the update to the Saucony Ride ISO 2
The Saucony Ride 13 is a versatile road running shoe that’s in the same category as the Nike Pegasus. This new version shows major changes.
There’s a firm rubber under the heel, which allows the shoe to resist wear and tear and improve its durability.
Related: Most Durable Running Shoes
The area under the heel is especially prone to wear as this is the part that most runners land on.
Traction-wise, you can feel confident in running in bad weather thanks to the shoe’s impeccable grip.
The outsole also features blown rubber under the forefoot. This light and flexible material allows the shoe to better adapt to the movements of the foot.
This is especially important during the toe-off phase when the foot pushes the ground to launch the body.
Finally, the flex grooves provide a greater range of motion for the foot by allowing the sole to bend easily.
The midsole features the new PWRRUN cushioning technology. PWRUN runs through the length of the shoe, it is a flexible and light, and it’s made from TPU and EVA.
This new cushioning setup does a great job at dispersing shock during for more comfort and safety.
More importantly, this PWRUN version offers the efficient energy return that you’re looking for.
Also, the FORMFIT technology is a kind of non-removable insole that completes the cushioning setup and conforms to the shape of your foot.
The upper of the Saucony Ride 13 is an engineered double-layer mesh. It’s designed to secure your foot while offering optimal comfort.
It has some great perforations to let your foot breathe preventing it from getting too hot while running.
On the Ride 13, the upper FORMFIT technology replaces the ISOFIT lacing system.
The semi-thick padded tongue improves the comfort of the shoe by hugging your foot gently in the shoe.
Finally, the semi-flexible heel counter comfortably and securely hugs your heels for a more efficient and pleasant support. The upper part of the heel counter is soft and does not bother the Achilles tendon at all.
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Nike VaporFly 4%
Typically, running shoes really don’t get that much hype. But after the Breaking 2 series of shoes, the hype was real.
Nike athletes have had countless best performances wearing various versions of the VaporFly and it only became more real once Nike claimed the official marathon record with that shoe.
As the name says, this is a Flyknit version of the VaporFly. The previous mesh version was very light and simple.
The Flyknit version maintains pretty much the same idea. It is very breathable and has a seamless sleek feel.
There are no overlays or cages, just different weaves of knit providing the structure throughout the shoe.
Compared to the mesh version, the fit is a bit different. While the Flyknit does stretch over time, this version feels a bit narrow and tighter out of the box. It takes a few runs to finally break it in. Once that happens, the feel of the shoe will start to feel more familiar.
Given the shoe is still fairly simple by design, Nike tried to provide a bit more structure in the heel.
The midsole setup is pretty much the same. You have a ZoomX midsole that provides a light bouncy plush cushioning with a lot of energy return.
I’ve tried tons of shoes and there’s nothing quite like a ZoomX. A good midfoot cushioning is something that you cannot appreciate in any shoe, but the VaporFly has you covered.
What really makes the ride of this shoe stand out is the full-length carbon fiber plate. This carbon fiber plate essentially propels you forward, and once you get momentum going, it’s almost like having cruise control.
Maintaining speed is something that the shoe helps with compared to other racing style of shoes.
It’s part of what makes this shoe what it is. The carbon plate almost gives the shoe a kind of Hoka rocker feel. I enjoyed the ride, but I can say that it won’t be for everybody.
The outsole is pretty much the same as before. It’s got a thin layer of rubber on the front of the shoe with a little bit on the heel.
The middle of this shoe is exposed and the idea behind this is to keep the weight down.
For this kind of shoe, I think the rubber is where it needs to be. Traction-wise, it does great on dry road-like surfaces, but on wet areas, it’s kind of just there and it won’t help you much.
Flexibility-wise, this shoe is still kind of stiff, but once again, you have a carbon-fiber. This shoe is not wide foot-friendly, and even if you have a narrow foot, you better be a very efficient runner in your foot strike. Otherwise, this may cause issues in the later miles.
In all fairness, this shoe was built with the elite athlete in mind or for serious runners who are looking for that edge on race day.
Again, if you’re one of those efficient fast runners and don’t mind the price tag, then the VaporFly 4% is for you.
For most people, it’s going to be a race-day shoe or something you can break out for a faster workout.
If anything, I think the upgrades that were made in the VaporFly Flyknit may be the way to go for most people, but that’s just my opinion.
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New Balance FuelCell TC
Every brand is pushing out their carbon plated shoes, but what makes this shoe different is that it’s intended to be used as a training shoe with the possibility of being used for competitions but more so a trainer.
The upper uses a synthetic mesh that provides probably the best fit on any carbon plate shoe on the market as far as being accommodating to a variety of foot shapes.
The upper is fairly simple by design. You have decent ventilation throughout the shoe and some structural overlays near the lacing area and around the heel.
But the big thing here is the fit. This shoe is a great fit throughout the midfoot to where you’ll feel very secure but never too tight.
The toe box allows your feet to splay naturally. It isn’t too spacey to where it feels sloppy but enough to where your toes will splay naturally.
The upper contains the foot in well. While running on the roads on just typical routes, the shoe feels secure.
The heel cup provides a good lockdown and the amount of padding inside the FuelCell is nice, meaning it isn’t too stuffy or padded but enough to where longer sessions in the TC are not an issue.
When taking the shoe on tighter turns, then I guess this combination of the simplistic upper and the higher stack height becomes a small issue.
Tighter turns at faster pacing like when attacking the curve of a track is a bit wonky. But as many of you already know, this is meant to be a carbon plate trainer and not something you want to be cutting, taking tighter turns, or doing cone drills with.
If you’re running on a relatively straight path, you’re good.
Overall, the upper is good and there are no major flaws when used within its purpose.
Now the big thing going on with the TC is the combination of the FuelCell cushioning with the full-length carbon plate.
The FuelCell is one of my favorite foams on the market, and in the TC, it is very much like a trampoline. It has that balance.
With the combination of the carbon plate, it is really apparent that this shoe has a lot more going on than something like the FuelCell Rebel.
The stack height of the shoe allows for more compression. So, as far as cushioning and that bounce, you got a whole lot of it.
As far as softness, I don’t think it’s quite as soft as the Nike VaporFly Next%, but it is softer than the Nike Zoom Fly 3.
I would say that the FuelCell TC sits somewhere between those shoes.
The midfoot cushioning is what really stands out. There’s just a good amount of padding that will keep your legs from feeling too beat up after a longer jog or run.
There’s a gracious amount of rubber throughout the midfoot and a bit of abrasion rubber around the heel.
It kind of blends in with the midsole, but it’s there. It gives this shoe some average grip and some added durability but doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary.
I would say that if you land mostly midfoot, you would get the most out of it.
So, the best way to describe the TC is “fun”.
It’s a fun shoe. The fit is one of the best I’ve tried in a carbon plate shoe and anyone looking into long-distance carbon plate shoes for training, it’s not even a question, the TC is legit.
If you’re into lower stack height less cushioned shoes, something like the Skechers Speed or Asics Meta Racer will be more down your alley.
So, when it comes to making a shoe for a purpose, New Balance definitely has you covered.
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Nike ZoomX VaporFly Next%
The VaporFly Next% seems to be the most popular and one of the best marathon running shoes in the world.
The VaporFly is back in its newest iteration, the Next%, in which I’m assuming would be at least 4 more percent than before.
So, this is the shoe that all the Nike elite athletes are wearing for race day or at least in the marathon.
This is the shoe that people are going out of the way to buy. The question is whether or not it is worth the premium.
The major update in this shoe is the new and improved upper. By improved I mean improved in just about every way compared to the previous Flyknit version.
The WapoWeave mesh is more so like the original VaporFly.
The upper isn’t the most stable material out, but for an all-out lightweight distance racer, I would say that it does great.
It is super light and thin but still holds the foot in pretty well. Breathability is as good as it’s ever been and the retro style tongue and stripped-down minimal upper is a thing of beauty.
There’s some inner padding near the heel that helps grip your heel for a more secure ride.
This upper is the definition of being just enough and cutting out all the extra nonsense but still giving you enough to get the job done.
The midsole uses Nike’s top-of-the-line foam. When it comes to the bounce, the energy return, the spring, Nike ZoomX cushioning is essentially leading the way.
The VaporFly has full-length ZoomX and actually has more of it than it did in previous iterations.
By lowering the heel-to-toe drop a bit, I think Nike was able to add a bit more foam under the midfoot, or at least it feels that way.
And then when you add a full-length carbon plate into the equation, it’s obvious why people gravitate towards this shoe.
It is springy, it pushes you onward, and has that rocking sensation that guides your foot forward.
The ride itself is soft and you definitely feel the compression of the foam when landing.
For long-distance running, this could be a good thing if you like more of a squish, but for shorter races, meaning the mile, the 5k, or maybe even a 10k, the squishy ride may be too much and you may prefer a more traditional engaged racing option.
The potential of this shoe seems to unlock the longer you run. So, if it’s race day for a half marathon or a full marathon or maybe your workout that you want to emulate a race pace, then the VaporFly will get the job done.
The outsole has also been updated. There’s a good amount of rubber in the midfoot through the forefoot and a little bit in the heel. There’s not a lot in that area, but most people who will be running in this shoe will likely be landing midfoot or forefoot.
So, for the most part, you’ll get a little more durability. But this shoe is not meant to be durable, it’s meant to be fast.
So, this is where you have to decide. The VaporFly is an amazing shoe, but ZoomX foam in this current iteration is not to be a long-lasting everyday foam.
This is a dedicated racing shoe, which makes this a very specialized shoe unless you have multiple pairs to just run through.
If you are interested in this shoe, you’re obviously aware of the cost. This is a premium shoe for a specific purpose.
And if you are already a fan of the VaporFly and love everything about it, it’s a no brainer. This is the best one.
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So, there you have it. These are 9 of the best energy return running shoes. If you have any other running shoe that you feel provides you the energy return you’re looking for, please let us know in the comments below.