Sports bras are big business. The apparel category continues to show rapid growth year over year, according to market research firm Statista, mostly because women increasingly want to wear comfy bras to play – and work. The same firm found that approximately 20 percent of women wore a sports bra “almost daily” in 2017.
But ever wonder why it's so hard to make a sports bra that's both functional and flattering? Well it might be because breast tissue is complicated. It doesn't move like we think it does, but more like a figure-eight pattern, according to scientists at the University of Portsmouth's Research Group, who are the first to specifically study physical movements’ effects on breasts.
Breast tissue doesn't naturally support itself and comes in far too many variations for a truly universal solution, but that isn’t stopping many active brands from aggressively innovating to resolve these sports bra dilemmas.
"We wouldn't say it's hard to make a good sports bra, but it's hard to make everyone happy with any one given style," Julianne Ruckman, bra product line manager for Brooks, tells ASN.
For example, while one woman may require a bra to control movement during her run, another woman might seek a more comfortable experience in a sports bra because she's choosing to wear it all day. "While it is a challenge to meet both those needs in one style, we push ourselves to solve for this in newer styles," Ruckman says.
The three keys are comfort, fit and support, and when they all come together in one package, it's the Holy Grail. Ladies, you understand – you've got to grab that style in every color before they're gone.
Lululemon is known for changing up its yoga-inspired apparel lines frequently, but has landed on an interesting new approach with its Enlite, a more technical bra made of a proprietary fabric called Ultralu.
The lightweight, breathable high-performance bra also leverages a cup fabric called Spacer that houses (and highlights) each breast separately, since we know they move independently rather than as a set. With the brand's wide, no-budge back strapping, this bra is supportive enough to run in, yet soft and shapely enough to wear outside a workout.
On the customization side, Brooks pioneered the much-copied front-adjust feature, which allows for on-the-fly (yes, you could cinch it when you hit the downhill on a trail run) tweaks in support and compression level, in styles like the Juno, and an easier on-off option with a J-hook back closure on the FastForward Crossback.
Both custom-adjustment innovations in front and back strapping give women new ways to make a bra feel more personal than an elastic pull-over that can quickly loose structure and shape.
Removable "modesty" cups are a regular feature now, too, which those of us with headlight issues greatly appreciate for coverage and shape. And in most modern high-performance bras a combination of antimicrobial and moisture-wicking fabrics come standard.
Oiselle, a brand run by and for female athletes, has nailed it with many of its supportive bras, including the newer Bae style, which combines removable cups, compression fabric, adjustable straps, and a breathable mesh triangle back. In particular, the angular back panel skirts the shoulder blades, which can cause friction and rubbing against the bra during high-impact exercise.
But as we know, that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the overwhelming options in women's sports bras. The best place to start is with getting a good fit – and learning what works for your body.
"Start by examining the bottom band, where most of the support should be coming from. Make sure it's not too tight or too loose, as you'll need to be able to breathe comfortably in it while in activity," Ruckman says.
"Check the cups next – any spilling out of the cups are a sign they are too small, and if you feel any extra space, try going down a cup size,” she explains. “If you are trying on a style with an underwire, make sure the wire is sitting under your cups and against the chest wall for the most comfortable fit."
Lastly, she says to make sure the straps feel snug but are not digging in or causing any pain-points. "Remember, your straps are there to help keep the sports bra in place, but they shouldn't do the heavy lifting for your overall support."
Final check: Try some jumping jacks or run in place to make sure you feel great in your new sports bra, and ready to take on that next adventure.
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