Whenever I put on and take off my sports bra, I feel like competing in the contortionist Olympics. As I pretzel my body into unflattering positions to remove it from my body, I then curse and swear and throw it into the laundry bin with exaggerated flair, screaming, “There! Got it!”
However, to improve your sports performance, you need to invest in a good sports bra. Besides looking cute when poking out behind your workout shirt, sports bras have a vital role in sports and workout performance, and it's time we let them shine.
The time has passed when we look at the humble sports bra as more than an expensive upsell at a sports store. Technology and innovation have seeped into the realm of sports bras, and leading research groups and scientists have put time and effort into creating the perfect garment to support our breast health and allow women to move with greater confidence and increased performance in the gym.
Don't believe me? The Research Group on Breast Health, located at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, has developed the latest technology to model breast movement to determine the best sports bra design for specific activities. Their design work has gone into the innovation of bras for over a decade, even designing for the military for long wear bras, to Olympians, for sports performance bras. It's safe to say there is no greater authority on bra fit and breast health than this group and its collaborative organizations, such as the EIS (English Institute of Sport).
Together, the Research Group on Breast Health and the EIS developed sports bras for the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Their research discovered that although 94% of female competitors wore a sports bra, a whopping 75% never had one properly fitted for their bodies. It is no wonder that over a quarter of the women surveyed said that breast pain inhibited them from maximal effort during training and competition, resulting in medication use to reduce their pain. And when you're at the height of your game, maximum effort is the basic level requirement to win. This idea that women cannot perform at their full potential isn't just a personal perception during training. The Research Group on Breast Health found that a properly fitted bra allowed marathon runners to run an additional mile in their time, which is an incredible leap in performance, simply by having the right garment for the job.
Most of us are not budding Olympians, but we are likely people who own at least one sports bra. We may even loathe purchasing another one because good ones tend to be pricey. However, how can having a well-fitted sports bra benefit us?
Breast health is more than checking our breasts for lumps or bumps as we age. Breast health is an activity that we can participate in throughout our entire lives, and it's vital to take care of this part of your body, especially when you exercise. Sports Medicine Australia has said that our breasts, even the small ones, can move a great deal during exercise, sometimes up to 21 cm. Breasts don't move up and down; they move in a figure-eight trajectory, which means they move up, down, and side to side during actions such as running and jumping. When looking up the general weight of breast tissue, depending on cup size, a woman's breasts can weigh between 1-6 pounds, the average weight being 1-4 pounds. If that doesn't seem like a lot, try picking up a one-litre milk carton. That carton of milk represents about 1 kg / 2.2 pounds. Imagine having two of those swinging freely and relatively unsupported on your chest wall during exercise – could you "run like the boys," then?
Breasts are made of fatty tissue and mammary glands, and the main supporter of the breast tissue is your skin. Your pectoral major and minor, located on your chest wall, are only the scaffolding in the back – your breasts are held in place by thinly woven fibres called Cooper's ligaments, which attach to your chest muscle. The more you bounce, jump, and age, these Cooper's ligaments stretch and lose their elastic quality, making your breasts aesthetically droop. If you're an avid runner, you may have repetitive bouncing trauma to your breasts, so much so there is a term for it, Joggers Breasts. A well-fitted sports bra is one of the topline recommendations for women to prevent this from happening.
But aesthetics aside, there can be painful consequences of not wearing a good sports bra, as the Sports Injury Clinic and the survey of Olympians have told us. Because of the weight on our chest, our posture can be affected by forward founding our shoulders and chests, impacting our neck muscles and upper back. Ill-fitting straps can dig into our shoulders and trapezius muscles, causing searing pain, not to mention bras that fit poorly under the arm and rub on breast tissue can cause painful skin chafing. The pain associated with wearing an ill-fitting sports bra is undeniably avoidable, but let's also discuss the personal cost of not educating our women and adolescent girls on taking care of their breast health.
An article titled Breasts putting girls off sport? tells us that 90% of 14-year-old girls in the UK do not meet exercise requirements, and about half of them put off engaging in sports due to embarrassment over their bodies. Puberty is an uncomfortable season in most of our lives, and we would be completely remiss not to address appropriate sports bras (and regular bra fits) for our young girls when the changes happen. If left to take its natural course, these girls will grow into women who might view their breasts similarly, with negative perceptions and associations of their bodies and exercise. As we know, our society is becoming increasingly sedentary and unhealthy, and exercise is vital not only for our physical health but our mental and emotional health as well. The last thing we should set out to do is create a feeling of fear surrounding exercise and how our bodies look during exercise, as it will impact how a woman engages in movement when it matters the most. Instead, our goal should be to create a society of both young and older women who are comfortable in their skin. How their body may move during exercise is relegated to an unimportant afterthought.
To choose the perfect bra or sports bra, the research group has determined five main characteristics, which are:
1. Encapsulation style (separate breasts in a cup)
2. Padded cups
3. Adjustable under-band
4. Nylon (principal material)
5. High neckline
Next, the fit is equally important. Purchasing your correct "size" is not as important as purchasing your best "fit." However, this may mean going into a store and trying on multiple sizes until you find the best one; rather than ordering online, it's worth the time investment. Look for:
1. The under-band of your bra should fit flat and firm against your ribs all around your body. Allow only a 5 cm gap when you pull the band away from your body.
2. Your breasts should be fully enclosed within the cups, avoiding all bulging, or gaping at the top or sides.
3. If there is an underwire, it should follow the natural crease of your breast. It should not rest on any breast tissue.
4. The centre front of the bra should sit flat against your body.
5. The straps should feel comfortable without digging into your shoulders or falling.