Let’s face it, a sports bra isn’t the most exciting cycling-related purchase you’ll ever make, but it’s one of the most essential. Not wearing a good sports bra for road cycling and mountain biking can overstretch the breast tissue, causing pain and, over time, your breasts to irreversibly sag.
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There are no muscles in the breast and the only supporting structures are skin and a connective tissue called Cooper’s ligaments, which weave throughout the breast and attach to the chest wall. But as they're thin and elastic, they’re not very strong.
According to a study by the University of Portsmouth’s Research Group in Breast Health (RGBH) of women exercising without a bra, multi-directional movement (up-down, in-out and side-to side) increased from 4cm during walking to 15cm during running.
Bikes and breasts
Increased breast motion isn’t only an issue for runners. While cycling doesn’t cause continual bouncing, according to Dr Joanna Scurr who leads the RGBH, the position you adopt on a bike and riding over uneven surfaces can present its own problems.
“On a bike, breasts hang more freely than during more upright activities,” she says. “This places a different demand on their natural supporting structures.
“Additionally, the vibration caused by uneven surfaces during cycling causes the bounce of the breast to be at a different frequency compared to other activities. It’s thought vibration frequency may be linked to breast pain or discomfort, so for some women the vibration frequency experienced during cycling may be more uncomfortable than that experienced during other activities.”
Types of bras
There are three types of sports bra: compression bras push the breast against the chest wall; encapsulation bras lift and separate each breast; and combination bras do a mixture of both.
Among the most popular brands on dedicated sports bra website Boobydoo are Enell, Berlei, Panache, PureLime, Freya Active and Shock Absorber. Some bras are compatible with heart rate monitors, such as the adidas Supernova Sports Bra, meaning you can ditch the strap for greater comfort.
As for which bra is best for cycling, Dr Scurr says there’s no one type — rather it comes down to the individual and which one offers you the best support. “Compression sports bras contain more elastic than encapsulation sports bras, so each may offer different movement reduction — or vibration damping. This will be influenced by breast size, breast composition, cycling position and type of cycling. Therefore, it’s worth experimenting with the two designs to see which works best for you.
“Due to the more irregular surfaces experienced during mountain biking the breast support requirements are likely to be higher. Also, the upper body is likely to be in a more upright position compared to road biking, which will change the position and support requirements of the breast.”
But while it’s important to get the right bra for you and the type of riding you do, it’s as equally vital that it fits you properly, otherwise it won’t do its job. Amanda Brasher, RGBH researcher and former senior buyer at Sweatshop, which offers a bra-fit service, advises to try a bra on at its loosest setting and says the underband is key. “It needs to be firm but not dig in. Slide two fingers under the underband and pull gently out. There should only be a one- to two-inch give. Look in the mirror and check the underband is level all around your body.”
The next step is to check the cups. “Each breast should be fully contained,” advises Amanda. “There should be no bulging over the top or side. This would suggest the cup size is too small. If the fabric is gaping or wrinkling this suggests the cup size is too big.”
Sports bras come in a range of backs — traditional U back, racer back, and Y and T back. Amanda says which style you choose is up to you, but the straps should fit securely on the shoulders. “If you lift the straps they should have only a one- to two-inch give.”
If a bra has underwiring, it’s important the wire isn’t sitting on any breast tissue. “With one finger, gently press against the wire to check it’s sitting flat against the body,” says Amanda. “If the front of the bra is lifting, or the underwire is sitting on breast tissue under the arm, then the cup size should be increased.”
Once you’ve found a bra that works for you don’t make the common mistake of thinking it’ll last forever. Dr Scurr says while it’s impossible to say how often you should change a sports bra — as it depends on how often you wear it and wash it, as well as how you wash it — you can’t expect the same level of support year after year. But one thing she is sure of is that “most women are wearing sports bras that need replacing!”