Shoes for Breasts: What Research Says About Sports Bras


Little research has been done in this area. This is unusual given that approximately one third of female athletes complain of breast discomfort when exercising and as little as 2 cm of breast displacement can cause breast discomfort. One of the leading researchers focusing on sports bras is Professor Julie Steele from the University of Wollongong in Australia. Julie, together with Sport Physiotherapist Dr Diedre McGhee, recently summarised the research done to date on sports bras and what to look for in sports bras.

The Facts

Breasts are supported by the overlying skin and a series of small ligaments throughout the breast tissue. However, these can’t limit breast movement through exercise. In fact, research has shown that unsupported breasts can move as much as 12cm during running. This movement can be reduced by up to 50% by wearing a well-supported sports bra. Julie’s research team has shown that only 41% of adult women exercisers wore a sports bra and 80% of adolescent females had inadequate breast support relative to their bra size and sport they were involved in. This poor level of support has been shown to lead to self-consciousness in adolesecnt athletes and a major barrier to larger breasted women actually exercising. In large breasted women it is common to have the arms braced against their trunk to limit breast movement. This changes run technique and inhibits actual performance.

Features of a High Support Bra

Three types of bra are available – the sports bra that limits breast movement by encapsulating each breast, the crop top that flattens the breasts as a single unit against the chest, and the fashion bra that is designed for appearance, not as a limit to breast movement. For light activity for a small-breasted woman, crop tops may do the trick. However, for a large breasted woman running hard, a sports bra and crop top may be the best suggestion to limit breast movement. Below are the features our sport scientists suggest to look for when selecting a sports bra:

  1. Cups should completely cover the breasts using supportive material – not lace or lycra. The cups should have no wrinkles or gaps (too big) and no buldging breast tissue over the top or sides of the cup (too small).
  2. Band should be made of strong elastic material and be wide enough relative to breast size: A cup – 1 clip; B/C cup – 2 clips; D+ – 3 clips wide. The band should not ride up when moving the arms above the head (too big) and no flesh buldging over the top edge of the band (too small).
  3. Straps must be wide and comfortable. Straps should not slide off (too big) and not dig in (too small).
  4. Front bands should sit flat against the breastbone.
  5. Underwire or soft-cup? An underwire should not sit on any breast tissue. If it doesn’t sit on the ribs or breastbone, a soft-cup bra is the best option. If it sits on breast tissue, the bra is too small.

More Reading?

If you want to read more, Sports Medicine Australia will soon have a great fact sheet for female exercisers. Our book The Masters Athlete has the most definitive (biased as I am not!) chapter (number 19) available on what sport and exercise science has found out about female masters athletes. Discussed in detail are the effect of the menstrual cycle on performance, menstrual irregularities, coping with menopause as an athlete, hormone replacement therapy, training through pregnancy, nutritional concerns of older female athletes, and ways of coping with PMT. A great Xmas present for a friend or spouse.

Source: McGhee, D. & Steele, J. (2011). Are breasts a problem for women in sport? Sport Health, 29(3): 42-47.