“So here’s my problem,” my friend Emily says, pulling up her shirt. She has a line of raw, raspberry-colored welts at the top of her rib cage, right below her boobs. “I can either wear a bra that’s comfortable but does nothing, or I can wear the one that does this.”
It’s the night before a 30K trail race, and we’re laying out our outfits for the next day, debating layers for the predicted drizzle and wind. The hardest question, as usual, is this: if you’re going to run for a bunch of hours, which bra is going to be the least terrible?
The sports bra was first invented in 1977. In the 40 years since, designs haven’t changed all that much from the original two-jockstrap jury-rig. The majority of options are flimsy, unflattering, or, like Emily’s, so overly constrictive that they remove skin.
Meanwhile, the need for more support has grown. A 2013 study found that the average bra size has increased from a 34B to a 34DD over 20 years, and female college athletic participation has increased by 600 percent over the same period. Bras aren’t keeping up. A third of women experience breast pain during exercise, a stat that increases in lockstep with cup size.
I wear a sports bra every time I recreate. More often than I wear socks. Way more than I wear pants. I spend upwards of $80 each time I buy one, and sometimes, because I have big boobs, I wear two. I could buy heli bumps at Silverton with that cash, but instead I’m swathing my chest in an ineffective spandex blend that is painful, ineffective, and not cute.
The options can be awkward, especially if you’re anywhere above a C cup. One of the highest-rated support systems on the internet is a $40 strip of Supplex, called the Buband, which you put on over your bra to anchor your tits, à la Roberta in Now and Then. Lululemon’s only mildly compressive bra has the cringe-inducing name Ta Ta Tamer. (Meanwhile, guys get plenty of new, high-tech, misspelled but supposedly super-supportive underthings.)
That disconnect exists for a lot of reasons: boobs in motion are complicated, bras compress a lot of tricky design questions into small packages, and it’s only in the past decade that researchers have put concerted effort into aligning the two.
Michelle Norris, a scientist at the University of Portsmouth’s Research Group in Breast Health, the first lab to research how movement affects breasts, says the biomechanics of breasts are incredibly complicated, which is partly why it’s hard to design a sports bra that stops them from moving. Breasts’ only form of natural support is composed of skin and thin networks of connective tissue called Cooper’s ligaments. Boobs move in 3-D figure eights—vertically, sideways, and in and out, all at the same time—and the magnitude of those eights varies based on tissue composition and distance from the rib cage. They’re basically snowflakes: every chest is different, and they don’t support themselves well.
Norris says that’s why there’s no single standard for the best bra design, and it’s harder to design for bigger breasts because they’re moving in larger orbits. But the researchers are trying to break down that difficulty with science, and they’re slowly making headway. In addition to looking at biomechanics and researching breast pain (they’re currently studying pain receptors in breast skin), they stress-test bras, which have started appearing in the lab in more varieties.
Part of the progress has to do with breaking through long-held stigmas. Before Norris’ boss, Joanna Wakefield-Schurr, started the lab ten years ago, it was taboo to talk about breasts in the exercise science world. Little research had gone into bra designs, and there was an underlying misconception that women with big breasts weren’t athletic. They weren’t going to work out hard, so why should they need support?
That’s patently untrue, of course. Even my 62-year-old mother, who still calls them jogbras, plays soccer three times a week. She needs a decent sports bra, too.
Over a decade of research, Wakefield-Schurr has found that boob size isn’t directly related to fitness, but that breast pain is a major deterrent for female athletes, as are range of motion and bounce-related embarrassment. Wearing an ill-fitting sports bra can cause nerve damage by impinging the brachial plexus. Serena Williams, arguably the best female athlete ever, imports bras from Australian brand Berlei because they were the only ones she found that had adequate support. Among her peers, Romanian tennis player Simona Halep jumped 450 places in the ranking when she had breast-reduction surgery in 2009. In doing so, she faced a huge amount of social scrutiny, including a male-sponsored petition asking her not to have the surgery.
Breasts have always been the center of how women’s bodies are perceived and policed, but in sports, where bodies are intrinsically tied to performance, they’re even more polarizing. Designing smart, supportive sports bras that make sense for a range of women, and taking the time to do the research to back up those designs, is a subtly subversive move. It has taken a long time to get here.
Science helps. In the lab, Norris found that the underband is more important than the straps, and bras that incorporate both encapsulation (separate cups) and compression (holding them tight to your chest) tend to reduce movement while still letting the wearer breathe. The best bounce reduction they’ve seen in the lab is 72 percent.
Heather Cvitkovic, director of global apparel merchandising for Brooks sports bras, says they’ve thrown themselves into sports-bra design because they see it as crucial market for female athletes. Brooks has an in-house bra-testing lab, and three of the company’s scientists trained at the University of Portsmouth lab. “We firmly believe that a bra is as important as a pair of shoes, and we’ve learned that it’s about comfort and support—that sweet spot,” Cvitkovic says.
The design challenges predominantly relate to sizing and materials. There’s a standard size grading from A to DD cup, but above that there’s no standard, so you’re making a completely new bra every time. “It’s hampered people from making them in the past, definitely,” Cvitkovic says. “Design is harder, and you don’t have as many choices in materials.”
Because a bra’s structure comes straight from its material, a slightly different fabric can completely change its composition or compressibility. A breathable mesh that works in a low-support bra might have no structural integrity in a bigger size. “If we’re putting out a high-impact bra, it takes four, five, or even six rounds till we get the perfect fit,” Cvitkovic says. “With apparel, it’s two or three rounds, max. That’s the difference between a $35 bra and a $65 bra.”
It’s still hard to nail the balance between enough support, comfort, and style. (Cute, trendy fabrics tend to fail on the compression front.) That’s why options are still limited. “The market is flooded with super-cute bras, but they don’t hold up,” Cvitkovic says. “Little things add up to a greater deal when you’re using something for miles and sweating in it.”
Sports Bras That Don’t Suck
Brooks Juno ($65)
Cvitkovic says Brooks just redesigned the Juno, one of its most popular bras, to be less clammy and easier to put on.
Sweaty Betty Ultra Run ($65)
British company Sweaty Betty was one of the first to offer high-impact bras in sizes up to a J cup. Style-wise, the Ultra Run treads the grandma line, but it works well.
Nike Pro Rival ($70)
The Oregon sportswear maker designed a uniboob-free bra that’s compressive while also cute enough to wear on its own.