Sports Bras & Support Tanks For Runners

Here’s how to dig through this season’s fads, trends and flops and find the perfect fit.

Written by: Kristin Harrison

Stitch two jockstraps together and what do you get? The world’s first sports bra, created by desperate female runners in 1977. While it wasn’t the most fashionable, the “jockbra” helped increase comfort and reduce breast pain during exercise—something more than 50% of us experience, according to a study in the The Physician and Sports Medicine. That magic combination launched a thriving industry.

Moving Comfort Juno Bra ($52, movingcomfort.com) Photo: Kurt Hoy

These days, biomechanical research has become a star player in the booming sports bra market, which netted $473 million in 2010 in the US according to The NPD Group, Inc/Consumer Tracking Service. In January, sports bra specialty company Moving Comfort partnered with biomechanics lab Progressive Sports Technologies LTD to study sports bras in relation to female runners’ gaits and body movement. CW-X patented their unique 5-point “suspension system” in its sports bras, designed in conjunction with a kinesiology lab. And, as reported in a new study in the July issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, independent research institutions are also getting into the game: the University of Wollongong in Australia created a new sports bra prototype in an attempt to find the most supportive design.

But all the research in the world won’t help you sort through every option at the running store to find the ideal sports bra or support tank (a top with a built in sports bra) for you. Here’s how to dig through this season’s fads, trends and flops and find the perfect fit.

(Click here to take a look at some of the hottest summer styles in sports bras and support tanks.)

Sports Bras

What’s Hot: Encapsulation, a design borrowed from more traditional bras, that supports each breast in separate cups to reduce individual breast movement without restricting blood flow and comfort.

Jenny White, a scientist at the acclaimed Research Group in Breast Health at the University of Portsmouth in the UK, studies breast pain and the best methods for breast support during exercise. She says the group’s research has found that encapsulation bras provide the most reduction in breast movement during exercise and increases comfort, particularly for larger breasted women.

Many running companies are now combining encapsulation and compression designs—where tight fabric is used to hold breast tissue against the chest wall—to meet the needs of all size runners and to make a more fashionable sports bra.

Encapsulation sports bras look more like traditional bras, and many female runners initially shy away from them after years of conditioning to a sports bra design that features one rectangular piece of fabric. However, once they try them, women seem to love them (myself included). As one larger-breasted runner told me, “Finally, my days of doubling up bras to try and tame the girls are gone. I couldn’t be happier!”

Testers’ favorites this season include the Moving Comfort Juno ($52, movingcomfort.com), with seam-free molded cups, adjustable straps and a keyhole back; Saucony’s Motion Sensor Bra ($45, saucony.com), with stretchable, breathable molded cups and a hook-and-eye closure for custom fit; and the CW-X Women’s Sport Support System bra ($45, cw-x.com), with five interconnected mesh straps to provide support.

What’s Not: The uni-boob, caused by compression-only style sports bras. This style bra holds breasts firmly in place by wrapping them in a solid piece of tight elastic-like fabric, effectively smashing them together. While White says this type of bra does provide adequate support for small-chested women, the design is often uncomfortable. After a sweaty run, there’s nothing more awkward than the tug-and-pull required to get this type of bra off.

Buying Tips:

  • Look for sports bras in traditional bra sizes, which is an easy way to identify encapsulation design. Adjustable shoulder straps and a back clasp provide further customization of fit, increasing comfort and support.
  • Choose sports bras marked “high-impact,” which are designed for running.
  • Researchers have found that breasts move in three directions of movement when running (up and down, side-to-side and forward and back). So, in the dressing room when trying on a sports bra, jump up and down, run in place and rotate your upper body sideways. “Check the bounce while you move,” says White. “You want to have minimum movement in your breasts without being too restricted.”
  • If the sports bra pinches, rubs or causes bulges of skin, put it back and try a different size or model.

Support Tanks

Brooks Glycerin Support Tank ($46, brooksrunning.com) Photo: Kurt Hoy

What’s Hot: Fashionable support tanks that include a high-impact sports bra built into them, making it unnecessary to wear an additional bra. Favorites on shelves now include the Brooks Glycerin Support Tank, ($46, brooksrunning.com) with seamless cups, breathable fabric and a back zip pocket; the Athleta Ready to Run top ($69, athleta.com), with a wireless support system, cup inserts and a “stabilizing sling” to keep breasts comfortably in place; and Moving Comfort’s Alexis Support Tank ($52, movingcomfort.com), which provides high-impact support for A-B size runners with molded cups and adjustable straps.

What’s Not: Support tanks that lack support. Avoid tops with shelf bras that offer little more than a band of elastic and a thin piece of fabric stitched into the top. While these may suffice for yoga, most runners need more support than this style top provides. Wearing a sports bra underneath a built-in shelf bra will only provide you with more chafe lines and sweat.

Buying Tips:

  • Just like a sports bra, try the top on in the dressing room and jump or run in place to test support and comfort.
  • When running in place, pay attention to where the top hits your waist. Does it ride up above your stomach in a way that will irritate you while running? Chose a longer cut and less clingy fabric if this will bother you.
  • Some support tanks include small back pockets for keys, an iPod or an ID card. If you plan to use this feature, test it in the dressing room with something in the pocket to see if it bounces uncomfortably.

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