At 12 years old, Holly Powell quit the swim team when her breasts outgrew her swimsuit. In college, she started jogging. "There were no sports bras for me back then," said Powell, now 50 and still a regular exerciser. "I had broken blood vessels all across the top of my bust."
When Powell went sports bra shopping, salespeople told her they didn't sell bras in her size. In 2011, Powell, who lives in Portland, Oregon, left her career as a teacher and librarian to open her own bra store, The Pencil Test. Powell's store now stocks 125 sizes, from 28D to 48G; regular bra stores stock 25 to 30, she said. "It was a case of 'If no one else is doing it, do it yourself.'"
Powell's store is unique, but the problems her customers face are not – and they're common to both casual exercisers and more serious athletes. Before finding a bra that fit right, Robin Proctor, 58, of Lake Lure, North Carolina, would chafe until she nearly bled on long mountain-bike rides. "On a hot day, you feel like you physically beat yourself in the chest because your breasts are bouncing around," said Proctor, who eventually found a bra, the Enell Sport, capable of locking down her breasts (the material, she said, is like Kevlar).
In a recent study reported on in The New York Times, researchers from the Biomechanics Research Laboratory at the University of Wollongong found a strong correlation between breast size and regular exercise: Women with larger breasts were more discouraged from working out. Out of 82 women with breasts categorised as large, 46 percent said their breast size affected their exercise routine; 58 percent of 43 women with breasts categorised as very large reported the same (researchers categorised sizes by volume rather than relying on bra size).
The good news is that a better bra can significantly increase comfort during exercise. A 2012 study from the University of Portsmouth in England found that a correctly fitting bra can reduce breast pain. Meanwhile, the University of Wollongong researchers recently developed their own app to help people find the right fit.
Powell has witnessed firsthand how a superior sports bra can impact emotional as well as physical health. "I've had people come to me saying, 'My personal best improved, I go to the gym more often,'" she said. "Having a bra that fits you deeply affects your self esteem."
If you're looking for a better option for yourself, follow these steps.
Find your size
When possible, get a professional fitting and try on as many bras as possible in a store. If a professional fitting isn't an option, the subreddit /r/ABraThatFits hosts a dynamic size calculator that considers six over-bust and under-bust measurements from different angles, far beyond the typical two. The group's members often help with fit checks based on photos or descriptions, as do the bloggers on the website Bratabase. Sizing is inconsistent between brands, but many companies offer a sizing chart you can use to find the best option based on your own measurements.
Although many sports bras come in basic S/M/L/XL sizing, some use a familiar sizing system that includes both cup measurements (A, B, C, D, E, F, and so on) and band measurements (32, 34, 40, 44, and so on). Styles that use cup and band measurements have more sizes to fine-tune fit.
After measuring, you may come up with a size that isn't available at a major retailer. Powell suggests looking for brands with UK sizing, which generally offer more cup-size options; you can find these at online retailers.
Choose your style
Illustration: Sarah MacReading
Sports bras come in three major styles: compression, encapsulation, and combination.
Compression bras hug the breasts close to the body to stop bouncing. Most aren't adjustable and come in relatively few sizes. They usually have a wide solid front panel, which can mush breasts together to create a uniboob look.
Encapsulation bras look like fashion bras. They separate breasts into two distinct cups and provide support through seaming, moulding, or underwire. Typically, encapsulation bras offer more, better-fitting options than compression bras.
Combination bras offer aspects of both designs. Breasts move laterally as well as up and down during high-impact exercise, and a combination bra is often the best choice to control movement.
Some more constructed sports bras, especially encapsulation styles, can look Madonna-esque. But don't worry about aesthetics if a bra offers you the best support, advises LaJean Lawson, a scientist and consultant for the sportswear brand Champion. "Have that boldness to say, 'I'm going to put that personal bias aside to try new things even if they look like my grandma's bra,'" she said.
Finesse your fit
Hook your bra on the loosest setting (you can tighten the band as the material stretches over time). Then, situate your breasts. "Take a hand inside from under the armpit and scoop it inside the cup" and then smooth the top of your tissue so that everything settles, advises Iris Clarke, the owner of Iris Lingerie in Brooklyn, New York.
Most of a bra's support comes from the band, so it should be snug, with about a half inch (12mm) of give – you can put two fingers between the band and your back to check. Raise your arms above your head to see if the band rides up or gapes. Check the straps to make sure they feel snug without digging in or falling off your shoulders, and adjust the length accordingly.
Move on to the cups, which should fully cover your breasts. If you have spillage, you may need to size up. If the fabric is baggy and wrinkly, size down.
If you're evaluating an encapsulation bra, look at the triangle-shaped section that falls between your breasts, called the gore. It should lie flat. If the bra has wires, they should sit under the breasts, without digging into your sides or riding up onto the breast tissue (if this happens, size up).
Look for bras with adjustable bands and straps so you can tweak your fit. If your breasts are two sizes, Clarke recommends fitting for the larger breast for more coverage.
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