“It’s an important piece that we actually invest in as much as we do in shoes.”
Finding a bra that fits can be incredibly difficult, but finding a sports bra that fits? This is a whole different kettle of fish. Sports science has historically focused on men and used men rather than women in studies, so it’s hardly surprising that a large number of us still wear ill-fitting sports bras.
As someone with large breasts, I’ve found it particularly difficult to find a sports bra that doesn’t ride up, dig in, or see me ooze out the sides. Molly Pollack, an Ekin Experience and Training Specialist at Nike, confirms I’m not alone.
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“Breasts and female bodies is an area we know a little bit about, but also not enough [we] I haven’t talked about it enough yet, so this whole topic of sports bras has been seen as a bit taboo, and you know, traditionally something that hasn’t been talked about,” she tells me.
Nike is a brand that focuses on this knowledge gap and invests almost as much in the research and development of sports bras as it does in shoes. The impact on women’s performance and comfort in sport and exercise is huge.
“So the investment and research that’s currently going into sports bras at the Nike Sports Research Lab is tremendous… IIt’s really accelerating in this area as we learn more about the female body, so [we] really focus on that as a brand. It’s an important piece that we invest in as much as we do in shoes,” says Molly.
Suffice to say, she knows a lot about sports bras, starting with the reasons we need them. And no, it’s not just flaccidity.
The problem with ill-fitting bras
When we think of ill-fitting sports bras, the first thing that springs to mind is sagging, but Molly tells me the problems go far beyond aesthetics.
“There is a lot of movement through the breasts and the effects of gravity on them can really damage the tissues in the breasts, the skin and the back muscles [and] Shoulders. It causes a whole range of problems and can be very serious. It doesn’t matter what cup size you are – it’s a big myth that it’s just that [related to] the cup size.
“The reason that [a] Sports bra is so crucial that from an anatomical point of view, unfortunately, the breasts do not have many built-in structures to support themselves. So the skin is really the only mechanism that can play a slightly supporting role, and that’s not enough.
“What’s more frightening is the damage that can occur to the back and back of the shoulders and upper body. That’s why at Nike we have a saying that goes “no sports bra, no sports” because it really is that simple. An everyday bra will not support anyone, regardless of cup size, with the vigorous movements that occur during exercise. That’s why it’s really important.”
It can also have a massive impact on performance — Molly mentions a study showing that women who run a marathon distance in the wrong size sports bra finish about a mile slower on average. The problems are not limited to large breasts either.
“So the movement that occurs in an A-cup can be just as bad as the movement that occurs in someone with a larger cup size. It’s usually amplified in the larger cup sizes, which we consider a plus. But it can be just as bad for people with smaller cup sizes.”
How are your boobs moving?
One of the first things to consider when choosing a sports bra is how your breasts move. That means paying attention to the activity you’re doing (e.g. compare Pilates to running) but also to your personal anatomy. Your breasts might swing differently than someone with the same cup size. It’s one of the beautiful things about the diversity of our breasts!
“It’s kind of a conversation about what’s the purpose of the activity you’re doing because you need different brands [and styles] depending on different load levels. So we always say it starts with a purposeful conversation.
“You then try to integrate, you know, well, how tall are you, what kind of sport do you do? And how would you like to feel when you exercise?’. It’s complex and everyone is different and you can have the same cup size and breast tissue and your breasts will move differently,” says Molly.
She also points out the importance of trying before you buy, which means online shopping is probably best avoided unless you’ve bought the style before.
“So the only way to be sure that the sports bra is right for you is to actually try it on and do a few movements to make sure that bra and the size of that material and the way how he compresses you, right boobs are working for you.”
Once you are in the dressing room
Finally, Molly points out the following five steps to focus on when shopping for a sports bra.
Step 1: “The first area we want to look at, and the most important when it comes to bra fit, is the chest band. So there’s that band at the bottom of every sports bra and it has to be tight and not restrict your breathing,” explains Molly.
“So it has to be comfortable but fit nice and evenly, and we have this two-finger rule, which basically means you should be able to slip two fingers under that breast.” [area] and you shouldn’t be able to pass anymore [than that]. Otherwise it probably isn’t tight enough.”
Step 2: “Second, take your two fingers and raise both hands straight above your head – you’re testing to make sure [the sports bra] does not move and that it stays consistent throughout the area.”
step 3: “We then move on to the shoulder straps. now [take the] same two fingers with those shoulders and straps. This is really about customizing the fit. It is important that the shoulder straps do not move [too much] and that everything is aligned.
“So two fingers behind the shoulder. And the reason we do it in the back and not in the front is because you have your collarbone [at the front] which will form like a natural gap, allowing two or more fingers to fit in the front,” explains Molly.
Step 4: “Again, this is a real problem area and we need to make sure you actually fill the cups without spilling anything when you look at the cups. So you don’t want dimples in the bra because that would mean she doesn’t fill it and it’s too big. But it also shouldn’t bulge on both sides, or it’ll be too small,” says Molly.
“It’s super easy to look at, just look at it [in the change room mirror] and say [to yourself] ‘Hey, do I fill it in?’. You can also cross your hands in front of your chest and lean forward. And that indicates whether you’re falling onto your arms or whether you feel like you’re pushing it in and there’s space between the bra and your chest.
Step 5: “The last step is really just about testing, so all you have to do is try to replicate the movements of your sport/exercise. So if you’re running, do a little jog in place or across the store, or if you’re doing CrossFit, do a few squats and lunges.
“Are you really focusing on ‘Am I over-exercising?’ and once you’ve had the conversation, once you’ve had the training, you’ve gone through the adjustment process, women are actually very good at determining if they’re sitting right or if they’re moving too much.
To find out more about Nike’s range of sports bras, click here.