Breasts: a complicated part of the female body. Some people loathe their breasts, and some people love them. But breasts are frequently entangled with societal expectations, gender norms, and the pressure to conform to certain ideals. This pressure is particularly pronounced in sports, where a specific body type is deemed ‘ideal’, and smaller breasts are often preferred. But all breasts, irrespective of size, need to and should be supported during physical activity, and this is why wearing a sports bra has become a vital piece of kit for athletes, amateur and pro.
The sports bra originated in 1948 when Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller, and Polly Smith created the Jogbra by sewing together two jockstraps. This invention addressed the need for suitable breast support during physical activity. Over the years, the sports bra industry has flourished as more women have become involved in sports and fitness. However, the emphasis on wearing a sports bra varies among different sports. For instance, running, considered a high-impact sport, deems sports bras essential, whereas sports like cycling, perceived as low impact, often overlook the importance of sports bras.
Despite efforts to make sports and cycling more inclusive for women, issues persist, with sports bras and breasts often left out of the picture, especially for women who have larger busts. Jerseys are not tailored for bigger chests, despite many being a female-specific cut, and sports bras are hard to come by on cycling apparel websites.
But even though cycling might not be seen as intensive as running when it comes to breast movement, they still need to be supported, and if a person is wearing a well-fitted sports bra while undertaking any sport, their performance can actually be improved by up to 4%, according to research by the University of Portsmouth. This research not only linked breast pain and sagging from not wearing the correct sports bra but also chafing and how women have to exert more upper-body energy if their sports bra is not providing the correct amount of support, making an athlete feel tired quicker. However, not many women are taking advantage of this simple performance enhancer, as they also found that 80% of women were wearing ill-fitted bras – a huge proportion of the population.
The benefits found were so great that even for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, all female Team GB athletes had a sports bra fitting (a first time for many) and received a bespoke bra designed for them and their sport. Afterwards, 87% of the athletes reported having found the correct fitting sports bra beneficial, and 17% said they had noticed an improvement in their performance. The results were so positive amongst the athletes that the females going to the Paris Olympics in 2024 are already being fitted for their sports bras now, Laura Craig, communications manager at Team GB confirmed.
Understanding breast support
“Breasts have very limited internal support, and actually the main supporting structure for the breast is the skin,” said Dr Nichola Renwick, senior research associate in breast biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth. “So, when we move or do any type of physical activity, the breasts move independently from the rest of the body because of this lack of internal support. The excessive movement then begins to break down the collagen fibres in the skin and that’s when they can become overstretched or even break. This can then lead to stretch marks and also breast sagging. Breast pain is also related to movement.”
It is clear, therefore, the crucial role a sports bra plays in protecting your breasts – or helping athletes win Olympic gold medals. Renwick added: “sports bras prevent that excessive movement and make you feel supported, preventing you from damaging your breasts when you want to go all out when exercising or trying different physical activities.”
She acknowledged that cycling poses unique considerations for the female anatomy, given the different torso position compared to other activities. Without wearing a sports bra, breasts would naturally hang down due to gravity. Despite the perception that breast movement in cycling may not mirror the up-and-down motion experienced during running (unless mountain biking or off-road racing), she emphasised that breasts do undergo movement – albeit in a distinct manner, involving more side-to-side or forward-and-backward motions.
Thus, even though a highly supportive sports bra may not appear as crucial for cycling as it is for activities like running, it holds equal importance. Without proper breast support, cyclists may experience breast pain, leading to limitations in movement, reduced breath frequency, or a diminished confidence to give their best effort. Therefore, ensuring adequate breast support through a well-fitted sports bra remains imperative for female cyclists, contributing to their comfort, performance, and overall well-being.
This is particularly true for females continuing with sports after puberty, and poor equipment choices may play a contributing factor in the 64% of girls aged between 16-17 who choose not to continue with any sports (Women in Sport: Reframing sport for teenage girls). But it is not a surprise that so many girls do not carry on with sport due to factors such as breast discomfort when sports bras are not on school PE kit lists, according to 84% of students. Education is clearly lacking when young girls need it the most. Renwick emphasised this point by adding: “breasts have been a barrier to participation for girls and women, and it's due to that breast movement and pain they experience. But these are things that can easily be solved by a sports bra.”
She highlighted the changing nature of a person's breasts, noting that they undergo constant changes, particularly on a month-to-month basis, influenced by hormonal fluctuations across the menstrual cycle, which can lead to an increase in volume and pain. Also, throughout one's lifespan, breasts undergo significant transformations – from the teenage years and puberty to pregnancy and then during menopause. As the body changes, Renwick stated that the support required for breasts also evolves. In light of these changes, she advised regular reassessment of the support level provided by sports bras and encouraged individuals to consider updating them accordingly. “It’s always important that if you feel any discomfort or pain, you should reassess your sports bra needs,” she said. “Especially if you like to exercise a lot or are an athlete because this discomfort could disrupt your training.”
“I always say with a well-fitting sports bra, you shouldn’t feel it on your body,” Renwick said when advising on how to find a sports bra that suits you. This allows individuals to fully concentrate on their activities, freeing them from concerns about pain, discomfort, or excessive movement. “It’s almost a psychological thing as well,” she added, stressing that women should be able to unleash their full potential, rather than being suppressed.
Support from brands
Despite the importance of a sports bra in any sort of sport, cycling included, only a few cycling apparel brands produce a sports bra. Even when available – as seen with Gobik, Pas Normal Studios, Castelli, Velocio, MAAP, DhB, Sportful, and Siroko – these offerings are frequently limited to a compression-style fit. Unfortunately, this style may not provide adequate support for women with larger breasts, leaving a gap in the market for inclusive and supportive options.
Rapha is one of cycling’s biggest brands and has become known for providing kits to a wide range of cyclists, especially for women. The British brand produce unique silhouettes for female cyclists in order to open cycling up to a wider audience. Despite having previously offered sports bras, a current visit to their website reveals an absence of cycling bras. In response to inquiries, the apparel brand disclosed that they are in the initial stages of developing a sports bra and are not prepared to divulge further details at this time.
Expanding the Google search for sports bras produced by cycling apparel brands, Spanish cycling fit Gobik had the most to offer, with three available. “Gobik aims to have the best cycling clothing, so women's garments must be tailored to the female figure. Being comfortable and wearing appropriate clothing is crucial to enhance a cyclist's experience as well as her safety and performance. For this reason, having a good sports bra is essential, ” said Imna Hernandez, head of pattern cutting and product development at Gobik.
In its collection, the brand features two distinct types of sports bras: a compressive style bra and a lighter, seamless alternative that offers a more relaxed fit while still providing essential support. Hernandez explained the rationale behind these options, citing insights gained from collaborative efforts with Women's WorldTour teams Movistar and FDJ-Suez. The feedback from riders revealed a preference for a more compressive fit during competition and a more relaxed option for training sessions.
“Their feedback is vital for improving our products,” she added, reflecting on the development of the brand's women's offering. “We also work with 'everyday' cyclists, and they are the first to test the products and with whom we initiate the development process.”
The brand only offers the compression style bra – foregoing the inclusion of a high-impact encapsulated sports bra in its collection. With performance still key in all the brand's designs, Hernandez said that Gobik decided not to make an encapsulated sports bra because “it was less breathable.”
Developing an item like a sports bra demands a delicate balance, and Gobik found it challenging to achieve this balance with an underwired or encapsulated design. Instead, the brand chose to provide a compression style bra, ensuring optimal support while adhering to the high-performance standards synonymous with their other products.
Nevertheless, similar to Renwick, Hernandez stated that the type of sports bra and its level of support is very individual, depending on the level of personal comfort each person has and the level of support they require, encouraging those looking for a sports bra to try different styles and different brands to find which suits them best.
While Gobik offers at least one option for women seeking cycling kits, numerous brands fall short in providing this essential piece of equipment for female cyclists. While well-known brands like Nike, Marks and Spencer, Lululemon, and others offer a variety of sports bras in different ranges and sizes, there is a crucial gap in the cycling industry. If the aim is to increase inclusivity and welcome women into cycling, shouldn't more brands prioritise supplying a piece of kit that every woman needs when riding their bike? Importantly, this should extend beyond catering solely to those with smaller chests and embrace women of all shapes and sizes.
The conversation around breast health also needs to be more open and prevalent throughout a woman's life, from education to later years. Research indicates that women and girls are enduring breast discomfort in sports but often suffer in silence due to a lack of awareness regarding the positive impact a sports bra can have, especially in sports like cycling.
It's time for the cycling industry and society to address these gaps, ensuring that women have access to the necessary support and information for their breast health – no matter their size.
Nichola Renwick’s five tips for finding the right sports bra for you:
There are two main types of sports bras - encapsulation (has cups that support each individual breast and is designed for high-impact sport) and compression (compresses the breasts against the chest and is for low to medium impact activities).
“Finding the right sports bra is not always easy and almost needs a trial and error approach. A lot of it also comes down to personal preference or activity you are doing,” advised Renwick. “We tend to recommend a five-step approach to finding the right sports bra for you.”
- The underband - make sure that the band is lying level around the torso and that it is not too tight so it is digging into the skin and the torso. If you give it a pull at the side, too, it should not be coming further than five centimetres from the body.
- The straps - they should be adjusted so that they can be lifted no more than five centimetres when you give them a pull and shouldn’t be digging in or feeling uncomfortable. If they do, you should adjust the straps.
- The centre of the bra that sits between the breasts - for an encapsulation sports bra, the centre part should be sitting flush to your sternum
- The cups - all the breast tissue should be sitting within the cup, not spilling or bulging out. There shouldn’t also be any fabric wrinkling or creasing because that is a sign it is then too big.
- Underwire - you should make sure that it follows the curve of the breasts and shouldn't be sitting on the breast tissue.
For more information and education about breasts and breast support, visit https://www.treasureyourchest.org
Cover image by SWPix