As we get older, our bodies change. How does that impact on the kinds of sports bras we should be buying, and how can we tell when a sports bra is the ‘right’ one?
There comes a point in every woman’s life when we realise that our sports bra is no longer serving us. For some, that moment appears early on – at school, perhaps; others may realise that they’re wildly unsupported in their 30s or 40s. For me, it happened two weeks ago. I was on an easy run before work, wearing my trusty old Lululemon sports bra, when I realised that my whole chest was moving.
It wasn’t just my boobs but all the muscle and skin from my collar bone down that felt like it was shifting and bouncing with every step. Needless to say, I clapped a hand over each breast and ran the rest of the route before chucking my favourite sports bra in the bin. What had happened? Normally the sort of person who can get away with gymming in a crop top, let alone a properly structured bra, I was amazed that the same sports bra that had got me through my last marathon was now offering no support at all.
The situation got me thinking: is this general sports bra wear and tear, or age on my part? How might my sports bra needs be changing as time ticks on (I’m 31 and a B-cup) and what damage are many of us doing by not wearing properly fitted bras while running, lifting and gymming?
Do breasts change with age?
“As we get older and our bodies change, we require sports bras that accommodate, with more stretch and equal amounts of support,” explains Lyndsay Doran, founder of luxury activewear brand, L’Couture.
Breasts do change with age, agrees Dr Nicola Brown from St Mary’s University and the Research Group in Breast Health at the University of Portsmouth, but the changes occur most prominently during menopause. “The composition and density of the breast changes, with the percentage of fat tissue increasing as the percentage of glandular tissue decreases. The thickness of the skin overlying the breast tissue also becomes thinner as women get older, and the elasticity of the supporting structures within the breast decreases.
“These changes alter the size, shape and internal support of the breasts. Therefore, external support from a bra is needed to compensate for the reduced anatomical support.” She points to a study of 208 women, aged 45 to 65, in which breast sagging, changes in size and loss of firmness were key breast-related factors that women associated with ageing.
The key to reducing pain and poor movement is ensuring that you have appropriate breast support now, whatever your age. “We have found that among adolescent girls, nearly half avoid playing sport because of their breasts (due to pain, embarrassment associated with movement, not knowing about sports bras, etc.)”, Dr Brown continues.
As we move into motherhood – pregnancy, breastfeeding – and out the other side towards menopause, breast support requirements change, which is why she says that “breast support is important at all ages.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Kathryn Pomfret, garment technologist at Pocket Sport. While she doesn’t believe that our sports bra needs change with age, she is an advocate for this idea that “we should always aim to wear the correct support at every phase of our life.”
Bad sports bras cause long-term problems
What’s the damage if you do keep running in crappy, unsupportive sports bras? Well, it’s potentially quite extensive.
“It is hypothesised that if breasts are unsupported, that repeated stretching of the supporting structures of the breast (the skin overlying the breast and cooper’s ligaments within the breast) may lead to irreversible damage,” Dr Brown warns. “Therefore, wearing appropriate external support (in the form of a bra) to support the breasts may reduce potential damage.”
It’s not just the breast tissue that can become damaged from wearing the wrong kind of sports bra, either. Pomfret warns that “if you don’t support yourself properly, you can cause back and shoulder problems. It should never be painful to exercise, so if you feel any discomfort, you might be wearing the wrong bra.”
Performance-wise, rubbish sports bras can seriously impact our speed while running. Research conducted by Brooks Running and led by the University of Portsmouth has found that women who run in a bra with poor support shorten their stride by 4cm. That’s like running an extra mile or 1.5km over the length of a marathon. In other words, the worse your bra, the more you’re having to work for your exercise goals.
You’d think that actual athletes would be immune from rubbish sports bras and the damage they can pose, but that’s not true. More than a quarter of elite female GB athletes have experienced such crippling breast pain from ill-fitting bras, that their ability to train and compete has been hampered.
The research by the English Institute of Sport (EIS) at the University of Portsmouth (again) found back in March that three-quarters of British female athletes had never been fitted for a sports bra. As a result, the EIS has been busy working on equipping 100 British Olympic and Paralympic athletes with bespoke bras ahead of the games.
What to look for in a sports bra
“The first layer needs to be almost second skin-like; the fabric needs to be comfortable and not irritate. And you need your sports bra to be supportive – like a gym buddy,” Doran explains.
“A big point of difference for us is that we also make sure the bra looks good on, because at the end of the day you need to love what you wear and feel good in it.”
More important than age, Pomfret tells Stylist, is understanding your body type. “The larger your cup size, the more support you need. The smaller your cup size, the less support you need – a compression bra would be great. Larger cup sizes, on the other hand, should opt for something with more structure and coverage.”
One thing that may explain my own sports bra disaster is the fact that we’re supposed to bin sports bras after a year, if you train regularly. Sports bras are like trainers; if you’re only exercising here and there, they last a while but if you’re training daily or for a marathon, they get past their sell-by date pretty quickly.
How to tell if a sports bra fits properly
Dr Brown shares her five top tips for making sure that your sports bra fits properly and is giving you all the adequate support:
1. The underband: this should be level all around the body. You don’t want it too tight so that it is uncomfortable, it affects your breathing, or that it makes flesh bulge over the band. The band should fit firmly around the chest.
2. The cups: people often wear cups that are too small, causing the breasts to spill out.
If they are too big, the cup will hang away from the breasts. The breasts should be enclosed within the cups, with no bulging or gaping at the top or sides.
3. The shoulder straps: these should be adjusted to comfortably provide breast support without being too tight (digging into the skin), or too loose that they slip off your shoulders. You should be able to fit two stacked fingers comfortably between your shoulder and the strap.
4. The centre front: this should sit flat against your chest. If it doesn’t, your cup might be too small.
5. The underwire: if your bra has one, the underwire should follow the natural crease of the breasts and not rest on any breast tissue, including under your arms.
Pomfret offers another test: “Once you have your bra on, jump up and down. Do you feel comfortable and contained? If not, check that you’re in the right size, that the straps are firm but not tight and that your underband isn’t riding up. If it’s still not right, opt for a bra with more structure.”
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.