Sports Bras, AGAIN

SPORTS-BRAS-facebookSports bras. We’ve blogged about them a few times already. Way back in the early days, still among our most popular posts (because “nipple,” don’t you know), Sam posted “Padded sports bras and nipple phobia.” She hates padding in general, and hates the reason for it (nipple phobia) even more.

Then I jumped into it, with “The sports bra dilemma.” I want a bra that fits comfortably, doesn’t chafe, and dries quickly. Not so easy to find, especially because most do not dry quickly. Which means that after the triathlon swim, you can pretty much count on a wet bra for the rest of the event.  But that’s a comparatively minor complaint. I reported on a study in which out of 1285 women marathoners who responded to a survey, 75% of them said they’re unhappy with their sports bra. That’s a lot of athletes!

Then Sam: “What’s wrong with sports bras? One more time…” and “Success on the bra front: Oiselle bras reviewed.”  Bra success is a huge deal, worth a whole post about.

So why write about sports bras again? The thing is, we care a lot about sports bras because dealing with bouncing breasts is uncomfortable and sports bras just don’t do the job we’d like them to do a lot of time. And there is no more obvious issue where there is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. So we keep the discussion alive.

As does this recent article from Racked, “Why are sports bras so terrrible?”  And more than that, can we expect them to get any better? Well, now that sport clothing manufacturers are starting to realize a phenomenal business opportunity, the answer is: maybe.

The Racked article gives an interesting history of breast support and athletics, noting that sports bras were patented as early as 1906 but never caught on. Then:

Finally, in 1977 — the same year Victoria’s Secret was founded — the sports bra as we know it was invented by Lisa Lindahl and Polly Smith, with the help of designer and runner Hinda Miller. That first sports bra was simply two jockstraps sewn together. It wasn’t just that jockstraps were the right size, they were also the right idea. “We said, what we really need to do is what men have been doing: pull everything close to the body,” Miller later told researchers. They called this new bra the Jockbra, but quickly changed it to Jogbra after store owners in South Carolina deemed the name offensive.

During its first year on the market, Jogbra moved 25,000 units. Two decades later, in 1998, the sports bra industry sold $412 million worth of product. A 2002 study estimated that sports bras accounted for about 6 percent of the then-$4.5 billion bra market. Today, the bra market is worth about $15 billion. Factor in that female participation in sports is increasing every year and athleisure appears to be heretostay, and it’s no wonder that from Lululemon to Under Armour to Victoria’s Secret, brands are turning their attention to sports bras.

There are researchers who study breast motion.  Breasts have no muscle. They’re basically just fat, glands, and connective tissue. If anything keeps them in place at all, it’s skin. And so they bounce around:

Understanding the biomechanics of bouncing is key to understanding how to make it stop, but it’s a field that’s only recently gained traction. And since breast size, placement, and density are different for every woman, researchers need to look at a large sample to get a good idea of what’s going on.

Jenny White from the University of Portsmouth and Julie Steele from the University of Wollongong are two researchers who study breast movement during exercise. Both say that:

there’s a constant battle going on between controlling the bounce and making bras comfortable. You could squash the breasts tightly against the body, but that makes it hard to breathe. The most common complaint, in the long list of ways in which sports bras are painful, is that the straps are too tight, sometimes even causing them to break.

It’s worth noting that wearing the wrong sports bra isn’t just a matter of discomfort or annoyance. Studies have shown that breast discomfort is a leading reason women stop participating in sports. And in extreme cases, an ill-fitting bra can actually do nerve damage. Bra straps generally cross over the brachial plexus, the nerve bundle that sends impulses to and from the arm. Women who wear bras with too-tight straps can damage that bundle, causing pain and numbness.

If breast discomfort, pain, and numbness are driving women away from sport and/or causing them permanent damage, that’s a serious issue.

Steele and White also worry about sizing.  Some surveys have shown that “literally 100 percent of women are wearing the wrong sized bra.” That may seem impossible, but you have to agree that bra sizing is “confusing, imprecise, and variable.”

Research is getting more sophisticated. Soon researchers will be placing tiny sensors on the breasts to gather GPS and acceleration data. This method will give more information about exactly what the breast is doing during activity. They will also allow for “field testing” as opposed to having to be set up in a lab. So that’s coming, and should yield more useful data once the technology is developed.

The racked article provides an interesting commentary on some of the fashion developments in sports bras. More and more, it’s not just athletic clothing manufacturers that are in the sport bra business.

Victoria’s Secret has waged war on “the uniboob” that has come to be associated with the compression-type sports bras. But:

Well guess what, sometimes the uniboob is in fact the best way to reduce breast motion and pain. But women are constantly being told that even their sports bra should be sexy. Styles with spaghetti straps and low V’s and padded cups win out over wide straps and good support. “Women feel like they have to present themselves in the best possible breasted way that will appeal sexually,” says Schultz.

If this sounds familiar, it is. Just a different riff on the “play hard, look cute” theme. Functional fitness wear is one thing, but if it doesn’t also look good, it’s not good enough:

A bra can’t just be a good bra, it also has to be fashionable and womanly. It has to hold the girls nicely, without diminishing their size and shape. And when forced to chose between those two things, bra manufacturers almost invariably chose look over function.

Why would women who are serious about their athletic activity sacrifice comfort for fashion while working out? Do you think men worry about how their jock straps look? No, they just want to contain their man-bits and keep them safe.

The researchers say the same thing: for women to choose it, it has to look good and make them look good. What if the designers came up with the world’s best sports bra?

Something comfortable and supportive and soft and easy to put on and take off. Something that wicks away sweat while providing coverage. Something that doesn’t pinch the shoulders or squeeze the rib cage. But if that sports bra isn’t cute, it wouldn’t matter.

When I look at my collection of sports bras, none of them is particularly “cute.” My Champion compression bras are funky colours, but they’re fairly standard in all other respects. My Under Armor bras offer more support and have padded cups, but they are plain black with greenish-blue trim. I find them comfortable–they don’t pinch or squeeze or chafe and the coverage is good. They even wick away the sweat to some degree, or at least they’re made of a fabric that doesn’t get waterlogged. Despite their lack of cuteness, I bought them anyway.

I wonder sometimes whether the researchers might be wrong about what makes us buy a sports bra. Considering that sports bras are mostly under our clothes anyway, do women really put fashion ahead of function, comfort, and support when choosing what to buy? And even if they did, is it really so hard to design a sports bra that’s stylish and supportive? I mean, despite that the first sports bras were made of jockstraps strung together, they’ve come a long way, haven’t they?

Almost every woman I know who is active on a regular basis has found a sports bra that works for her–the go-to that she favours while the others sit languishing in the drawer, under-used or completed unused. This, in my view, doesn’t set them apart from regular bras, which many of us toss aside as soon as we get in the door at the end of the day.

Maybe it’s just the nature of the task and of the bouncing breast that sports bras will never be perfect. But you have to wonder what the state of bra technology would be today if they were essential sports equipment for men.

19 thoughts on “Sports Bras, AGAIN

  1. The quest for a good sports bra is never ending. I am small chested but need something. Chafing is my primary problem- why does this never get solved? I feel like I shouldn’t have to spend $50 to get a “good” sports bra. Especially in the warmer months. I would like ones with fun colors and prints that was also effective. I run shirtless many times in the summer and like colors as part of my personality. Being small chested I have better choices. I am sad for my larger chested running friends.

    1. If you are small and looking for something inexpensive in fun colours, try Champion compression bras. At some times of year they come in 2-packs at Costco for $14.99. They are very comfortable–not fancy, but I have an orange one, a neon pink one, a teal one, and a black one. They’re not really enough support for me for long runs, but I sometimes wear them for short triathlons and always for cycling and weight training.

    2. If you are small…almost everything works for you! If you are From C cup up…there’s another disscution.

  2. I totally agree with you about choosing a sports bra on function first – if it’s cute as well that’s a bonus, if it looks good that’s a bigger bonus.
    But like you, I am astonished that the problem of sports bras hasn’t been ‘solved’.
    I’m a scientist and keep abreast (hmm, sorry) of developments in the field of polymer materials, and there are materials out there that could be used in combination with more conventional clothing materials.
    I guess there are two problems – one is the individuality of women, both in terms of their breasts (size, density etc.) and their requirements (sports, range of movement, level of not-bouncing etc.), and the other is the cost of trying these materials out. At the moment, most companies in the market identify and occupy a niche, there are few (ShockAbsorber, perhaps) that provide a real broad range of alternatives in size and function. This is fine as long as any outlet has a wide selection on offer – and I think that’s often not the case, especially for highstreet stores, so women end up with something that approximates what they need.
    As I’ve got older (and fatter) I’ve migrated from Sportsjock to Enell to ShockAbsorper and Lynx as I got to the limit of what each company produced. I’m lucky that online stores (e.g. have grown as I have.

    1. You’re right that everyone is different and that the cost of trying out materials may be a bit of an obstacle. I like your list of companies to try, too. More to check out.

      But really, as I said at the end, if men needed this item do you think we’d still be waiting? I’m not so sure!

  3. I love the Champion ones, too! I get the ones with a hook and eye closure and regular straps that are adjustable (as opposed to a racer back). They’re a pretty good price, too, compared to many other brands.

    I laughed out of derision when I saw the Victoria’s Secret push-up workout bras. I mean, I buy a sports bra to keep everything contained, not to have more jiggling! And I’m not exactly going for sexy when I run. Men, however, assume my affinity for spandex as trying to look sexy, when really it’s because I find form-fitting workout clothes much more comfortable. But, that’s a whole ‘nother topic 😉

  4. I find that sports bras wear out faster than other bras too. Does anyone else have this problem? I find one that’s nice and supportive, but after a couple of runs and washes….it’s loose and no longer doing the job.

    1. I haven’t found that with Under Armor bras. Also, once I found what I wanted, I bought more than one. It’s a bit of an investment, but worth it. And when I can get away with the cheaper ones (for example, for weight training I don’t need as much support as for running), I do. And finally, do you handwash and air dry your athletic clothing? I find if I do that (or at most wash on gentle, in cold water, and air dry) it lasts a really long time.

      1. I got my first Under Armor bra earlier this year. I named her Agnes. She was meant to be my super secure running bra. At first she seemed to be a perfect fit, but once I started running with her….she did what is described above….pinched and started to make one arm go numb. Eventually, the normal wear and tear loosened her enough that I don’t have that problem any more, but I think I need the kind with adjustable straps. The ones I’ve had in the past like that last a little longer than the standard shaped ones. I do wash on gentle in cold water and air dry. I think the problem is that I wear a 32DD. It’s hard to get the best fit when your arms, shoulders, and torso are narrower than your chest. I get the too tight breathing problem or the too loose everywhere else problem. And then, they always seem to stretch out over time and often too soon. 🙁

  5. I’ve never shopped at Costco..because we can’t buy food in bulk for living in small condo. But will check out the…bras. I don’t like spending a lot of money on a bra when I’m small anyway.

    And definitely, for certain underwear, any type of non-outwear /unlined clothing that you wear, handwashing will lengthen the longevity of the garment. (I used to sew 80% of my wardrobe. So I didn’t want my creations ruined/lifespan shortened by washing machine.)

    1. I’m sure you can buy the Champion bras without going to Costco. But if you have a friend with a membership, you can ask them to keep an eye out for the bras. They’re not a consistently stocked item, so you (your friend) will need to snap them up when you see them. But again, no doubt you can find the bras elsewhere.

    2. I got my Champion bras at Academy; it’s a sports store in my region (Texas). I’m not sure where you’re from, but they might be at a sports store by you instead of Costco.

  6. …do women really put fashion ahead of function, comfort, and support when choosing what to buy?

    I like this question a lot. As someone who has tried virtually all the non-custom options available to me — and who’s borderline in the camp of “inadequate bras are keeping me from being active” (they’re not keeping me from being active, but they’re keeping me from being as active as I’d like to be) — I can’t realistically imagine rejecting a functional sports bra because I was unhappy with its aesthetic.

    1. Maybe for some people who have multiple options, it’s a luxury to be able to choose the most aesthetically pleasing bras. But for others, as you mention, it would be such a blessing to find a comfortable and functional sports bra that being fussy over fashion isn’t really an option.

    2. Totally agree! I am way form over function with any bra, especially a sports bra. Like the author said, I have one in purple (a “fun” color) but also one in black. I’m not too well-endowed but busty enough to need a maximum support bra.

  7. I seem to want something different from you when it comes to sports bras – something padded because it’s more comfortable for me (with large and sensitive nipples, it’s more comfortable for me to have them not rub against my outer layer when I’m exercising), but not squishing my breasts into my body because, again, the sensitivity issue makes squishing too much quite painful. Actually my main complaints about sports bras are that they have removable padding that gets messed up in the washer (so I end up sewing them in place) and that I always have to buy a size bigger than I think! Definitely not a simple solution as it seems everyone needs something a little different.

    1. I actually like the padding too – I find it more comfortable. It’s Sam who rejects padding. But I agree with you that those removable pads get all messed up in the washer. I usually take them out and wash the pieces in one of the mesh bags.

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