When Kim Larson joined a running club and started training for her first marathon in 2005, she enjoyed plenty of support from teammates. It was her undergarments that let her down.
Larson, who wears an E cup, learned quickly that bras she had worn for tennis and other sports weren’t up to the demands of long-distance running. She wanted extra support to control jiggle and prevent chafing on her shoulders and rib cage during training sessions that frequently lasted two hours or more.
“Bouncing is a big issue,” Larson, 29, said. “It’s uncomfortable, plus I would really get rubbed raw.”
Breast support is not just about comfort. A good supportive bra may help protect the skin, ligaments and tissue that keep the breast from stretching out as a woman ages, Washington-area plastic surgeon Gregory Dick said. When these types of tissue lose their elasticity, the breasts lose their natural shapeliness and become droopy. “Wearing a supportive bra to exercise may help minimise the damage,” he said.
A woman who wears a DD bra carries about 12 pounds of weight on her chest, which can cause back pain, a problem that often leads to breast-reduction surgery, Dick explained. Good support is particularly important in high-impact sports such as running.
“Breasts are made up of mostly soft, elastic tissues and don’t have much in the way of firm internal support structures to keep them from stretching and bouncing during exercise,” said LaJean Lawson, who has conducted sports bra research at the biomechanics lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis for more than 25 years.
Studies say that the sometimes dramatic weight shift that comes from bouncing or swinging breasts can affect a runner’s gait and lead to injury.
The basic design has changed little since the late 1970s, when two long-suffering female runners fashioned the first Jogbra from two jockstraps.
The holy grail is to develop a sports bra that is supportive yet comfortable.
Moving Comfort, a Seattle-based women’s apparel company, makes 20 styles of sports bras to help “women of all shapes and sizes enjoy the benefits of exercise,” Vice President Julie Baxter said. Some styles come in sizes that fit up to a 44-inch rib cage, and designs for larger sizes are in the pipeline.
Some companies develop and test bras with two- and three-dimensional imaging systems, attaching sensors to volunteers’ breasts to chart how they move during various activities.
“We pay a lot of attention to vertical breast motion and measuring how well various bra designs tame it,” said Lawson, a paid consultant to Champion Athletic Wear.
“It’s clearly the largest component of total breast motion during high-impact sports that require running or jumping, and the most directly related to pain and discomfort during exercise, especially for larger-breasted women. Once you understand the problem and solid approaches for solving it, the actual sports bras that may result may include high-tech materials,” she said.