The bra. It’s a modern marvel of everyday engineering. But apparently, that’s not enough to make most women look hard enough to find the right one — up to 85 percent of us wear the wrong size.
That’s bad for regular lingerie but downright excruciating when you’re in a sports bra: The Cooper’s ligaments that suspend and shape the breasts can be stretched out through high-impact sports — but unlike muscles, they don’t bounce back. “Once you’ve ruined them, you’re going to be saggy forever,” says Meghan Bresnyan, associate merchandise product manager for undergarments at the women’s sports apparel company Athleta. “It’s super-important to support yourself while exercising.”
So which bras offer the best support? Cupless compression bras — which squeeze the breast tissue against the chest wall — are fine for low-impact activities and smaller-breasted women, but a 2007 University of Portsmouth (England) study found that encapsulation bras, which boast cups that surround each breast on all sides, are best for restricting motion, regardless of cup size. They also bypass the dreaded “uniboob” look compression bras can create.
For the boobalicious, Bernadette Wallace, spokeswoman for Hanesbrands Inc., which markets sports and traditional lingerie lines such as Champion, Bali and Wonderbra, suggests cushioned straps that are wider across the top to reduce pressure on the shoulders, as well as features like underwires and extra back support. Larger breasts have more contact with each other and their surroundings, so look for low-friction, moisture-wicking fabrics. Runners of all sizes need those same kinds of fabric, plus solid straps that won’t slip.
Fit and Function
The next step in finding the right sports bra is getting the right fit. Fortunately, your lingerie size can provide a useful starting point. To find your size, pull a tape measure snugly across your rib cage underneath the breasts, then add 5 to get your band size. Next, measure loosely around the fullest part of your bust and subtract that number from the band size to get your cup size: A 1-inch difference is an A cup, 2 inches is a B cup, 3 is a C, 5 or more is a D. Sizes change, so measure at least annually.
Before heading to your local sporting-goods store, visit the Web sites of brands you’re considering for fitting guides and model suggestions based on your activities and preferences, such as Nike (nike.com/nikeos/p/nikewomen/en_US/brafinder) and Champion (championusa.com/Champion/catalog/PFLanding.aspx?ID=99).
Once in the store, take several sizes of the bras you’re considering into the dressing room and “do the bounce test,” Bresnyan says. “Jump up and down and watch yourself in the mirror. If you have spillage anywhere, it’s too small. The band should fit tighter than your everyday lingerie bra because it’s going to need to support you more, but you don’t want it to hurt. If you’re wearing an underwire, you want to make sure it’s on the rib cage and not cutting across the breast tissue.” Also, make sure the back is level from side to side, not pulling up in the middle.
Wash and Wear
Once you find the right bra, load up! “You shouldn’t wear the same garment more than once [in a row] because you want to give that elastic a chance to go back to its regular shape,” Wallace says. (You also probably want to get rid of the sweat and bacteria that settled into the fabric during your last workout before starting your next one.)
Because most women don’t take time to hand-wash their bras, the next-best thing, Bresnyan says, is using a mesh lingerie bag in the washer. Heat and liquid detergents break down elastics and spandex, so rely on powdered detergents, cold water and air drying. Eventually, though, your sports bra will need to be replaced — probably sooner than you think.
“If it has celebrated a birthday,” Bresnyan says, “you need a new one.”