Supportive sports bras: high performance sports bras, be they compression, encapsulation, or combination bras
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How to shop for the best sports bra
Research has found that poor breast support during activity can result in breast pain, damage to the skin (which is the breast’s predominant support structure) and can even affect your performance by reducing stride length and causing changes to breathing (such as breath-holding).
And it’s not just the bigger-breasted among us that experience issues from lack of support; the Research Group in Breast Health at the University of Portsmouth found that highly-supportive sports bras can reduce discomfort and movement from A cups upwards. The question is, what classifies as a highly-supportive sports bra, and where do we find one?
As it stands, there isn’t a regulatory body that certifies the quality of sports bras, so whilst some brands invest in independent tests, many sports bras you come across may only have been tested in-house. Low, medium and high support ratings are generally allocated by brands, and there’s actually no criteria that needs to be met in order for a brand to label a product as a sports bra.
The key considerations when shopping for a sports bra should be breast size and also the type of activity you plan on undertaking.
There are three types of sports bras – compression, which fits like a crop and works by hugging breasts to chest, encapsulation, which mimics everyday bras in appearance with a few added extras, and combination bras which, unsurprisingly, combine elements of both.
Compression bras can really only offer enough support for those with smaller breasts (A-C at a push), whilst encapsulation is preferable for those with larger breasts. Bear in mind that as breast size increases, so does the need for support.
How the best sports bra should fit
‘You should always ensure that the bottom band is secure, as this is the foundation of support,’ says Helen Splaton, Apparel Merchandising Manager EMEA at Brooks Running. ‘With the right-fitting bra, your straps should also stay in place on the shoulder without digging in or sliding off.
As a general rule of thumb, ‘secure’ means that you should be able to fit two fingers under the band/straps – but not comfortably more than two!
‘The cup shape is also important, and you should look to see that there is no spilling at the neckline or, conversely, no gaping open cup. Finally, the bottom band should sit level around the body without riding up at the back which would suggest the incorrect size.’
When trying on a sports bra, Hannah advises against judging its support level by just jumping up and down. ‘Unless all you plan on doing is jumping, you’ll want to try it out doing the motion you want it to work in,’ she says. ‘If you’re a runner, go run in it! If you do yoga, downward dog in it! Most brands want to ensure what you purchase is working for you, so don’t be scared to take them up on that offer!’
Brooks Dare Crossback Run Bra
Sizes available: 30AB-40DD/E
Brooks’ Dare Crossback Run Bra is, for want of better wording, a work of pure wizardry. It’s so lightweight and buttery-soft that it seems impossible it could provide support enough for a casual stretch, never mind a high-intensity activity like running or skipping, yet it is up there with the most secure-feeling sports bras we have tested.
The moulded, padded cups and cross-back design provide the compression needed to significantly reduce breast movement, and as it’s a pullover bra with next to no seams there’s none of the discomfort or irritation that sometimes comes with adjustable bras (honestly, you might even forget you’re wearing it).
The fabric contours to your body and feels firm – but not restrictive – against the skin, however, as there’s no option to alter shoulder strap length, it might not be the most supportive option for all body shapes, particularly those who are taller or have larger breasts and require the custom fit or additional support of an encapsulation-style bra.
It has a super-sleek, minimalistic design, and it comes in four colours.
Sweaty Betty Ultra Run Sports Bra
Sizes available: 32A-38F
Sweaty Betty’s Ultra Run Sports Bra isn’t just for those with a penchant for pavement-pounding. It’s actually a solid choice for any activity which requires considerable support, so whether boxing, dancing or skipping, it’s got you covered (both figuratively and literally).
It’s a compression and encapsulation combo, so has a happy mix of both customisable support and cute appearance. Padded, adjustable straps allow a personalised fit, whilst moulded, non-padded cups keep you feeling secure.
It’s quick-drying with mesh panels for ventilation – perfect for those sweaty sessions – and you can choose between a U or racer-back depending on your preference. It might feel tight at first if you aren’t used to snug-fitting sports bras, but you’re likely to notice a significant reduction in bounce.
Shock Absorber Active Multi Sports Support Bra
Sizes available: 30D-40GG
Whilst Shock Absorber isn’t necessarily known for its super-stylish activewear (supportive sports bras, by nature, just aren’t especially attractive), the Active Multi Sports Support Bra is actually very easy on the eye. It has a simple, sleek design with a subtle curved neckline and edging in a contrasting colour.
Where support is concerned, it’s a really good contender. It has double hook fastenings to keep it anchored in place (though the top one can be a little tricky to do up and undo), and padded, adjustable shoulder straps for a feeling of security.
There’s no underwriting and the cups aren’t padded, so whilst it does reduce breast movement, our tester found there to be a little more bounce than some other sports bra styles with light padding in the cups. That said, it feels comfortable for most high impact activities and it’s machine washable, so that’s a double win in our book.
Nike FE/NOM Flyknit
Sizes available: XS-XL
We’d liken Nike’s FE/NOM Flyknit sports bra to a firm hug; it has a tight, cosy fit without feeling restrictive.
It’s a compression bra, meaning it has all the cuteness of a crop (a win if aesthetic is an important consideration when shopping for fit kit), though it doesn’t have the adjustability benefits of an encapsulation bra, so it’s really best-suited to people with smaller cup sizes (A-B, C at a push).
Moulded, non-padded cups and thick shoulder straps provide support and ensure minimal bounce, whilst the stretch fabric and seamless design feel comfortable against the skin for the duration of a high intensity workout.
It’s incredibly lightweight – like a second skin, even – and allows easy freedom of movement. You’ll also be relieved to hear it’s machine-washable.
Freya Core Underwire Sports Bra
Sizes available: 28D-38JJ
Thick, lightly-padded shoulder straps aside, Freya’s Core sports bra doesn’t look all that dissimilar to your everyday bra. Less appealing for those who like to train sans-top, but great where comfort and support are concerned. The back sports (couldn’t help ourselves) a hook and eye fasting, so it’s easy to get on and off, and a firm under-band keeps the bra rooted in place during movement.
Underwiring, although not for everyone, helps to control breast movement whlist engaging in activity, and silky-soft fabric feels gentle on the skin, though the cups are not padded. Shoulder straps are adjustable to ensure a snug fit that keeps you feeling secure.
One niggle that frequent exercisers will want to bear in mind: the Core Underwire Sports Bra is hand-wash only, which isn’t ideal.
Runderwear Easy-On Running Bra
Sizes available: 28D-42E
Honestly? Runderwear’s Easy-On Running Bra is one of the comfiest sports bras we’ve come across. Soft-on-the-skin fabric means there’s no irritation or chafing, long-distance runners will be glad to hear, and lightly-padded, adjustable shoulder straps allow a customised fit without uncomfortable cutting-in.
Moulded, wire-fee cups and a high neck mean that breasts are supported and movement restricted, whilst a wide underband helps to hold the bra in place during high intensity activity.
There’s a reason it’s called Easy-On; it has a fully open back, like a traditional bra, with two rows of hook fastenings for a snug fit, so no hauling overhead necessary. Best for cup sizes D-H, it offers superior support – and a gateway to activity – to those with bigger busts. For cup sizes A-C, try Runderwear’s Original Running Bra.
Lululemon Enlite Bra
Sizes available: 30C-40E
Designed with runners in mind, Lululemon’s Enlite Bra is actually a good go-to for all manner of activities, thanks to its thoughtful design and generous support. Built-in padded cups help to ease breast movement, whilst the cross-back feature helps to keep the bra bolstered even during the bounciest of exercises.
The hook-and-eye fastening, which ensures a firm – but not constrictive – fit, lies flat, so there’s no itching or irritation, and the fabric, which is lightweight, breathable and sweat-wicking, feels smooth, yet secure, against the skin.
The shoulder straps aren’t adjustable, so it’s probably a bra better suited to B-E cups; those with larger busts will likely benefit from additional support such as underwiring and wide, customisable straps.
It comes in four colours and, as sports bras go, it’s one of the more attractive high-support options we’ve seen. Plus, it’s machine-washable.