How to buy the best sports bra
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
You’ve invested in decent running shoes, maybe had a gait analysis, and quite possibly have a smart watch and on-trend leggings. But what is your sports bra doing for you? Probably more (or less) than you think! Unfortunately, nearly 20% of women actively avoid exercise in part due to reasons related to the breast (1). Embarrassment, pain or not finding the right sports bra were cited as problems in multiple studies. The type of sports bra you have may be a secondary consideration, but it makes a huge difference not just to how supported you are, but how you feel. Sports bras have been shown to prevent damage and pain, dramatically improve comfort and confidence when exercising and even their speed and performance. They’re definitely not one size fits all. In fact, what we need changes depending not just on what exercise we are doing, but on our stage of life.
Like me, you may remember in the late 80s and 90s, sports bras were pretty drab, often uncomfortable, and far from designer chic. Luckily, with fashion designers and celebrities like Stella McCartney and Victoria Beckham teaming up with sportswear giants to produce high end activewear, and traditional retailers, ever stylish high end brands and tried and tested specialist bra brands all offering sports bras, they are the latest item to blend sport, fashion and scientific research. So how do you know what to look for and what's worth spending your money on? It starts with understanding what our anatomy, what happens when we move and how it impacts far more than feelings of self consciousness.
Shape, sag and speed
Unfortunately, inherent support our breasts get from our own connective tissue is pretty poor. There is no muscle tissue within the breast, with the pectoral muscles sitting behind it
It relies on 2 structures:
1) Cooper's Ligaments
2) the skin
The Cooper's Ligaments - thin bands of connective tissue which suspend the breast and take strain when we move. These may undergo gradual stretching, or 'creep' (lengthening) with excessive chest movement. The skin gives it it's form and a little support.
Faster ageing - a myth?
Sadly not! Breasts age faster than some other body parts, mainly due to the effects of gravity and weaker structure. The changes in collagen and elastin (the building blocks of our connective tissue) that happen during menopause make can compound this process as we get older.
Multidirectional movement, compounding effects
When women do exercise, the breast moves independently of the torso, with a lag between when they move and when the breast moves. This compounds the effect of movement, and therefore any overstretch. Skin is also susceptible to stretching, the effects of gravity, hormonal changes and ageing (think stretchmarks).
Size and support
The world leading Research Group in Breast Health, based at University of Portsmouth, have analysed thousands of women, looking at breast movement and how different bras help. Their findings show that there is 15cm of independent breast movement when the average breast sized woman jogs or does aerobic activity. The breast, on average (in the UK), weighs half a kilo. That's alot of mass, which, if moving unsupported, can tug on the skin and ligaments, leading to stretch, sag and pain (1) Another unfortunate truth is that breast tissue ages faster than other body parts, simply by virtue of gravity, combined with mass, which migrates down without external support. Over time, without support, the ligaments and skin can become like an elastic band that's overstretched, and once damaged, don't repair. It's estimated that up to 70% are not wearing the correct size or fit, leaving most women susceptible to damage. Don't think if you are smaller that it doesn't matter so much either - movement is greater with greater mass, but can still overstretch the skin. You may be someone who gets away with generic sizing, but given that the better the fit, the better the support, getting a bra with a specific cup size is often best for higher impact exercise. Self measure at home and don't be restricted - brands go from 30A to 40HH and beyond, so look around! (4, 5, 6).
Perform better, run faster, breathe better
If preventing pain, premature aging and overcoming the effects of gravity isn't enough to convince us that modern sports bras really make a difference, recently noted speed and performance benefits might! Recent University of Portsmouth product based testing found women running in a bra with poor support shorten their running stride by 4cm. Over a marathon, it equates to nearly an extra mile! A study of London Marathon runners also supports the theory that those with larger busts, independent of weight, will take longer to run a marathon distance. This may be in part due to the need for greater chest support and a change in how efficient the running style is (7). It's relevant for other sports too though, such as tennis, netball, rugby and hockey, where speed and ability to stride out really matter. Breathing patterns and pectoral muscle work are are adversely affected, with more effort going into controlling the chest and less into breathing effectively and propelling you forward.
The 'perfect sports bra' - there's no such thing
We're spoilt for choice, but there's big differences between bras, and there's no such thing as the perfect sports bra. What works for some may not work for others, as we are all so unique. Consider not only your shape and size, but what you are doing. It may also take time to get used to how a decent sports bra feels! While the purpose of the bra is to reduce this movement to a safe limit, as any woman knows, if it's attractive, made of breathable fabric, comfortable and a perfect fit, it's a winner. Ideally you would try it on (not easy in lockdown, but hopefully one day in the future...).
How to choose a sports bra
3 key styles of sports bras, the pros and cons
3 styles - compression, encapsulation, and compression & encapsulation together.
Compression sports bras - work by compressing the breast against the chest wall
Pros: Reduce the movement and force through the breast, and can be very comfortable, especially for small breasted women.
Cons: more elasticised, still allow some movement. This can be a problem for those who are D cup or greater.
Encapsulating sports bras - these encapsulate each breast separately, and work more like an every day bra
Pros: Great support for larger breasted women and give good motion control.
Cons: More rigid
Combination bra - Combination of Compression & Encapsulation - moulded cups on the inside with a compression overlay.
Pros: From a support perspective, they give you the best of both compression and encapsulation bras.
Cons: You may feel like there's support overload and too much fabric, depending on what you are used to and depending on the make.
Different bras, different women, different sports
The 'average' UK woman is a 36DD - so most will need quite a bit of support. In other words, for the 'average' or larger breasted teen or woman, a crop top style bra won't cut it for high impact sport. Don't assume though, that just because you're more buxom that a combination bra gives you both compression and encapsulation that it's the best for you. It may be, but it's best to try them on and experiment with different bras for different types of exercise. Some women love the feel of compression, others hate it! Feel what's right for you. The bra you love for running might feel really restrictive for yoga or pilates, so don't feel you have to stick to the 'one perfect bra' for every activity. In fact, literature suggests that appropriate breast support may not be achieved by a single bra design (3).
Quality sports bras can reduce movement by more a third to nearly three quarters, depending on features. The most important features in support high support textiels, encapsulation style, padded cups, nylon, adjustable underband.High neck drop (ie a higher neck style) also gives more support without having to sacrifice style (7).
If you find that breast pain really stops you exercising, even with a great sports bra, lower impact exercises such as pilates or yoga might suit you. If you want to get your heart rate going without having pain, swimming might work for you, as buoyancy from the water gives you some support. Up to two thirds of women experience hormone related breast pain too, so the movement related pain can compound that.
Special considerations - growth, breastfeeding, implants, age and illness
Young girls clearly want and deserve advice to help them appreciate their bodies and exercise confidently as they grow. The University of Portsmouth have great resources (on their cleverly titled 'Treasure your Chest' website) on breast health, bras and sports bras for teens, parents and teachers. The 'Limitless' bra is the first sports bra designed specifically for teenage girls, and again, it's been subject to rigorous testing. If young girls and young women want to understand bra sizing, here's a nice Miss Vogue article which talks teens through measurement.
Again, the market has moved on, with companies realising that women are keen to exercise post baby but when your breast size changes literally overnight and your chest sensitive, it's hard to find the right bra. There are nursing bras for sport, there's little to indicate the benefit of one type over another, so again, go with comfort and fit. If it's painful and tough, don't rush getting back to higher impact exercise, and do shorter bursts of activity.
Bras and breast surgery
If you have had breast augmentation/implants, a lumpectomy or mastectomy, you will have some scar tissue. A specialist bra is almost always advised during the post surgical recovery phase. This helps the scar tissue adhere and healing to be complete. Surgeons will often recommend a sport bra for this phase, but it's possible a specialist compression bra may be more appropriate. For more on what to chose, see this article on sports bra vs compression bras post surgery.
Specialist companies, such as Amoena, specialise in supporting women post cancer and/or mastectomy with comfortable, fashionable and supportive underwear, sports bras and swimwear. Click here for details.
Menopause and getting older
There's an accurate, yet not entirely 'uplifting' piece on how breasts change through life on the NHS website. Our breast tissue is often denser and our size often changes as we get older, so it's worth getting up to date measurements.
So let's go shopping! Well, at least online for now....
I can't begin to cover the amazing array of what's available, but click here to see some of the lovely sporting lingerie available right now.
References 1 Brown, N et al. The experience of breast pain (mastalgia) in female runners of the 2012 London Marathon and its effect on exercise behaviour. Br J Sports Med 2014 Feb;48(4):320-5 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23603819/ 2. Zhou, J. et all. Methods of studying breast motion in sports bras: a review. Textile Research Journal. 2011 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0040517511399959
3. McGhee, D. et al. Bra-breast forces generated in women with large breasts while standing and during treadmill running: Implications for sports bra design. J. Appl Ergon 2013 Jan;44(1):112-8
4. Research Group in Breast Health web pages https://www.port.ac.uk/research/research-centres-and-groups/research-group-in-breast-health
5. Sports Medicine Australia Sports Bra leaflet https://www.bra.edu.au/sportsbra/SMA-N.pdf
6. Scurr et al. Breast displacement in three dimensions during the walking and running gait cycles. Nov 2009 . J Appl Biomech; 25(4):322-9. https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/jab/25/4/article-p322.xml
7. Norris, T. et al. How the characteristics of sports bras affect their performance. 2020. Ergonomics.https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00140139.2020.1829090?journalCode=terg20
8. Brown et al. An investigation into breast support and sports bra use in female runners of the 2012 London Marathon. 2014 J Sports Sci. 2011 Jan;29(1):55-61. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02640414.2013.844348
9. Scurr et al. Supported and unsupported breast displacement in three dimensions across treadmill activity levels. J Sports Sci. 2011 Jan;29(1):55-61. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21077006