Tuesday 7 May 2013

My Sports Bra Revolution (Guest Post)

This post is by a very special guest--my mother!

I started running when I was 14—40 years ago. I run because I feel wonderful afterward and sometimes even during. Since I was perhaps 21, when my breasts reached their permanent size, until only a few years ago, the lack of proper sports bras interfered with the pure freedom of running I remembered from the early years.
            I have tried many sports bras, and only a few of them have worked. But I have continued to run, wearing everything from underwire everyday bras to those officially called sports tops, which barely supported me. I have sometimes pressed my wrists against my breasts as I loped up my street in the early morning. I have put up with a lot of bouncing to be in shape. (As addictions go, I often say, exercise isn’t a bad one.)
            A world where engineers long ago invented bounce-free egg cartons, spaceships, and even baby strollers, someone ought to be able to come up with a sports bra that works. Lucky for us, a few are starting to hit the mark.
            I have concluded that a good sports bra is so rare because until recently, too few well-endowed women haven’t insisted. And, of course, many haven’t insisted because they didn’t find running very comfortable, the classic Catch-22 situation.
            I too have at times wondered if I shouldn’t run because I don’t look like Joan Benoit Samuelson. But no, that’s silly. Humans, thin, padded, and even overweight, were made for running through the savannahs. We can run without any bras, as women no doubt did for millenia, but in a world with every available technology, why should we?
            At any rate, I’ve always come back to running. Short of spending an entire day going up and down a mountain, which interferes with things like making a living at sea level, no other exercise comes close in terms of the joy and contentment it delivers for so little cost. Running is the perfect exercise, aerobically, financially, and practically.
            But a sports bra that holds the bottom of the breasts tight against the body is a piece of equipment I won’t do without. And most sports bras on the market fail to do this.

Why you will be glad you did not come of age in the Twiggy-worshipping years

            My personal history with sports started early, when I didn’t need a good bra. Which might be why I continue in my quest to run. I can’t forget what it was like when it came so easily to me.
            When I started running in 1973 I wore a 32A bra. My friend Jane’s mother told a group of girls that Title IX, the 1972 federal education amendment, meant we could go out for the cross-country team. Jane and I both had brothers on the team; my brother said I should go for it. Soon I was doing workouts of 5 and 10 miles and racing uphill against boys. In the first meet, I beat a boy in the final sprint. I had unleashed a tigress within.
            I was 14. There were no sports bras. At all. But then, I hadn’t finished growing, and I was fairly skinny and flat-chested—come to think of it, not unlike the women modeling the cool and unsupportive sports bras in today’s Patagonia catalog. The kind of women I have finally learned I will never look like.
            When I was 15, I placed seventh in New Jersey in the girls’ mile. The next year, I suffered an injury, probably a stress fracture from unpadded men’s running shoes that we wore then (that’s another story for another blog). I stopped running for almost a year, then tried it again, but ultimately stopped team running. That coincided with very normal growth in my breasts. I come from a family of late bloomers. My breasts did most of their growing between age 17 and 22.
            Around the time I started running, some very negative messages started coming at me from some very trusted people, including my own beloved mother, my ballet teacher, and the ballet teacher’s husband. When I was 13, the otherwise nice ballet teacher’s husband had once gone around the dance rehearsal with a clipboard recording how many pounds each of us should lose. I should have walked out! 7 pounds? My short career as a dancer is another story, but this kind of scrutiny laid the groundwork for the attitude that a woman must work her body to fitting some imagined ideal.
            When I found running as a sport, though, I forgot about all that. I was just borne away on the pure high of competitiveness and endorphins. But in the greater culture, most girls my age longed to look very thin. This was an age of anorexia nervosa and bulimia, two problems I never had. This is relevant to sports bras because, back in the 1970s, when I was going through all this, the default attitude was that if you could not find clothing off-the-rack that made you look good, or if that fashionable stuff didn’t fit, that meant something was wrong with your body, rather than that the clothes were inadequate to reality.
            I told myself then that I too wanted to be very thin, but my real goal had more to do with feeling free and unselfconscious—the way I had felt at the top of my running form.
            When my breasts began to grow into their 36C size—or, as I learned a few years ago when my daughter took me to a proper bra fitting, 34DD or 32E—I wished they’d be a little smaller not so much because I wanted to go on the stage or screen—because I wanted to be an athlete and I didn’t think I could be a good athlete with a chest.

            In college, when I did go running for exercise, my regular underwire (as I wore by then) bras were all I had, but they chafed pretty terribly. I never would have considered running the kind of distances that it turned out my body is best suited to. I would have had to bandage my chest at the spots where it met the bra.
             I started to wish for a bra that would mummify movement like a roll of tight gauze, preventing me from bouncing. Well, the most popular sports bras that came out finally in the late 1970s claimed to do that. They said they would compress the breasts—not quite like binding them, but close. What they actually did was function like a large, loose-fitting bandage, as a friend of mine once remarked.
            It was a reasonable goal, to prevent breasts from bouncing too much. It’s one important element of freedom during sports, but it’s not the only one. More about that in a second.

Jogbra: Two jock straps sewn together

            I ran only sporadically while in college (1977-1981) and didn’t own a sports bra until the early 1980s, when my brother co-owned an athletic store. I bought the first Jogbra, whose inventors literally sewed together two jock straps in the design phase. Moving Comfort shelf bras, designed to compress, came next. 

Moving Comfort bra
I wore a number of those through the 1990s, after I’d borne and breastfed two daughters and was back to running on a daily basis.
            These early compression bras had nothing going for them other than compression and then only if you bought a small enough size. The bands underneath the breasts weren’t wide enough or strong enough to hold breasts close to the body. They didn’t eliminate bounce. Most of them still don’t. Take the Patagonia bras of yesterday and today.

Patagonia shelf bra

Finishing a race in a Patagonia shelf bra
            Sports bras really need to constrict. No bra will stop bouncing entirely. But good ones can hold the bounce close in and prevent the breasts from spilling out the bottom as you run.
            The first sports bra that really worked for me was a classic shelf/compression bra made with a special fabric with 30-percent spandex. It was called the Frog Bra. Title Nine Sports, a California catalog marketer, had it made for them for many years. (The catalog copy went something like this: “Leap without bouncing.... This bra got the highest rating from our largest-breasted testers and, believe us, they’ve tried every bra out there. One said, “It’s almost like not having breasts at all. Well, almost.”)

Frog Bra

            Title Nine discontinued the Frog Bra some years back, but I still have a size medium one kicking around the house. I tried it out the other day and found its magic had all been in the spandex, which by now has lost its punch. You can see from the design that this bra has nothing else going for it other than covering the breasts.

            Four years ago, I discovered this Freya Active bra that encapsulates, uses little elastic, and doesn’t chafe.
Freya Active

This bra is not a looker. But it has worked better than any other sports bra I’ve tried, and it has held up amazingly well over four years. 

In the pictures above, I’m finishing a 7-mile trail race, and I look like a happy woman, a real woman who isn’t wishing to be flat-chested. A woman who is proud of who she is.
            Yes, the seams show, and I’ve read buyer reviews blasting the company for that. Why? I don’t care about seams in a sport bra, not at all. I care about being able to run comfortably. This is sports, not fashion.
            When you examine the construction of this Freya bra, you can see it’s built on three factors: constructed, three-dimensional cages (for lack of a better word) for each breast, air circulation (the thick mesh fabric around the breasts), and tough straps that do not stretch when you move. 

Freya Active design
This bra holds the breasts close enough to the body so that when I run, they run with me instead of bouncing crazily downward out of the bra in protest.
            Just a few days ago I visited Zoe and Co. and bought myself a new sports bra, also by Freya. This one’s underwire and comes in a snappy red color. I’ll never lose this in my drawer. I have high hopes for it. It fits very well and looks good under my T-shirt.

Freya Active sports bra

New Freya Active bra under T-shirt
            I’ve been running with a few Shock Absorber bras and tops. One (not shown) is the same model the blog master reviewed a few months ago. It’s a variation on a compression bra that works because of the second band and hooks mid-back, and the key is that the band must be very tight. I think of this as the best compression bra I’ve found, but I can’t wear it comfortably for more than a few hours.
            Another Shock Absorber bra I like, guardedly, is a full-body top that I have used for yoga and when running the hot weather. See the photo of me after a Fourth of July race. 

This has an inner constructed bra with two bands that hook, one low and one high. It takes ages to put on but works pretty well.
            One of my dark horse favorite bras combines the best of compression/shelf design with the best of encapsulation. It’s a humble, almost homely design by Royce. The band is much wider than most shelf bras, and that saves it. It covers the breasts all the way to that bone that sticks out below my neck. So I’m glad I got it in black for under black shirts, because it often peeks out. The Royce has strategic seams, creating that cage for breast movement during running, and two layers of fabric. 

I wore this bra for a different 7-mile trail race, that one on a hot August day. 

It worked well. In fact, I’m wearing it right now at my desk.

            One more thought. I avoided a bra for years that looked like a cross between a shiny corset and something you might wear after you broke your collarbone. I avoided it because my beloved Title Nine Sports catalog, which has sold it for years, named it the “Last Resort Bra.” I’ve learned that this bra is just called the Enell Sport. It was designed by a Montana hairdresser who, like me, wanted to run and found that most bras don’t work. It ranges in sizes from 00 to size 8. I would not buy it from Title Nine now that I have realized it sells only 0 to 4 and renamed them “XS” to “XL.” My 32E or 34DD size corresponds to size 1 in the Enell Sport.
            And I’ve ordered one—from Enell directly. I think I’m going to love it. I will let your blogmaster know.
            Running is a fine sport for the well-endowed. A bra that fits us is not the last resort, but the first.


  1. This red Freya Active Sports bra looks so good on you, I want to get one - and I don't even do sports!

  2. Looking forward to your Enell review! I'm not a runner (best day of my life was getting out of the Army and throwing out my running shoes!), but I love horseback riding and even walking while the kids scooter without a sportsbra is trying.

  3. Wohoo go Mom! :)
    You made me take out my running shoes and my Enell :)
    I am sure you are going to love it every bit as much as I do. Thank you for sharing your story and keep us posted.
    Since you tried more or less everything out there, I would love a panache sport bra review from an experienced runner ^^

  4. I love this. I was a big runner in high school and college (sadly my knees won't let me anymore!) but I remember those awful shelf bras and I do wonder if I could have been a much better runner if I would have had a more supportive sports bra? I distinctly recall being jealous too of my small chested friends who had those cool performance wear tops with the built in bras (and now it's possible for us too thanks to Freya Active, yay!).

    So far for me Freya Active really is the Holy Grail of sports bras. I just wish I could send some back in time to the me in high school, I would have been in heaven!

  5. Thanks for a great write-up. The detail is quite useful, and I commend you for staying with a sport you love.

  6. How are there no comments on this yet!?

    Thanks for the post. I started running in the last few years. I would have KILLED to have access to good sports bras in high school. I was such an athlete in middle school - volley ball, track! - but it STOPPED, dead on, in high school. I was measuring a 34DD at 14. Who knows what my actual size was because that was from our friends at the mall.

    I'm a big fan of the Shock Absorber. Ran my first half with it in '11 (at a 38F/G at that point). I just ordered my 2nd one (36G) and am training for another half in September... :)

    I'm totally going to try to track down that tank! :)

  7. Thanks for this post-I currently run in a crappy minimizer bra with a compression sports bra over it to keep the 36DD in place, nothing works for me yet but have ordered two Shock Absorbers so hopefully one will do the trick. I used to run in what I called Frankenbra-an old white Jogbra sewn inside a newer Moving Comfort bra-anything to allow me the freedom to sprint when I damn well felt like it.

  8. Thanks for this post. My favorite is Panache Sports bra (38D) for running and Shock Absorber sport bra top (40D) for cycling. When running sweating between breast make Shock Absorber uncomfortable because breast pushed against each other. With Panache breasts be perfect separated with well padded wires. On the other hand it assists sweeting on hot days. Support for my opinion is the same both. I'm waiting for your Enell review.

  9. Any updates on the Enell?

  10. I highly recommend trying the Elomi Energise. I've blown money on dozens of sports bras over the years since I love to run and do high impact activities like jumping jacks. This one fits perfectly one cup size down from my normal size of 34H. So happy to finally find a sports bra that separates, tacks, breathes, and stops bounce completely while being really comfortable!

  11. I love some of these sports bras! I always have trouble finding good and affordable bras.

  12. I hate my enell, the straps are too long and I still bounce. I'm curious what model Royce you have?

  13. Heavy boobs here in bounce prone sports -

    Panache is crap, but that line is crap for my boobs in normal bras. Thus, I suspect it's my boobs not working with Panache, not bad design.

    Freya and Royce fence in my boobs, but not enough band support. My heavy, full on bottom boobs shove the band down in front, then yank up the back over my shoulder blades. Too wimpy of bands. The underwire Freya Active is an ok lazy day bra. I wear a 34 mostly, 33.7" rib measurement, and I forget the exact band sizes, lazy day is a 32, the other two are 30s I think.

    Shock Absorber - level 4 - is good for if I'm doing lifting, but it's just not my favorite.

    I've griped to Title Nine for years. The Enell should be "Try this first!" in all sizes.

    My sole issue with Enell is the lack of bigger cups on smaller bands. However, these are the best for me. How I wear them - and why I worship them - makes for seriously no bounce when I'm jumping my huge warmblood or my Thoroughbred who jumps HIGH. Only minor jiggle. I wear a 4 or 5 (depends on time of month, and I'm right on the high side of 4), which fences everything in, then a 1 on top to give band support. 1 should be too tight, but it works perfectly.

    I've got more, but there's various issues, so I wear them for barn chores. Since that's where I've destroyed bras faster than anything else. In summer, I'll wear only a bra on top which is how they get wrecked.

  14. These are really nice ones.
    Nice designs as well as fitting.

  15. Great post; thanks for sharing! I am relatively new to all this, but wanted to mention that I recently bought a sports bra made by Anita, size 32F, and it's quite wonderful. I feel comfortable running in public for maybe the first time since middle school. The bra, unattractively called "Extreme Control," has a wide elastic band, strong straps, just three hooks in back, and comfortable, breathable fabric. At any rate, it's another option to check out--just as I plan to check out many of [your] recommendations!

  16. I adore my Panache Underwired Sports bra in 30F. My 34D Level 4 Shock Absorber did nothing to help my breasts compared to my Panache - I'm not much of a runner but I have run a few times in it at a decent pace and my breasts feel so supported, no bounce, not to mention it looks really nice!

  17. I just ran a half-marathon in a Shock Absorber Level 4. (I run in either Freya Active or Shock Absorber.) I had some severe issues w. chafing at the clasp during my training runs, which I solved by overlapping with an oversized seamless racerback boobsling "sports bra", but I'm curious if anyone has any other solutions. (BodyGlide only goes so far.)

  18. Hi, I wanted to ask you about sports bra sizing. Is it different from normal bras? For normal bras, I wear 75e(34dd in US size), but for sports bras, I wear 80b(36b in US size. I bought it when I wore 36d for normal bras, which is what the measurement tape indicates. I have changed to 34dd because I prefer a tighter band.) The fitter said that that's because sports bras are different from normal bras. She is the one who fitter me into the correct size after my having worn 85b(38b)for years, and I think she is a good fitter. Still, it seems weird to me that I could need a dd cup for one type of bra then a b cup for another one. And I don't know if my sports bras are fitting me correctly, because I have bought sports bras only once. Is there any reason that sports bra size should be different from normal ones?

    1. Hi, I'm the blogmaster's mother and the writer of the original post. Other than the Enell, most sports bras seem roughly in line with regular bra sizing (unless they use S-M-L, which most good ones don't). I wonder if the different sizing your fitter suggested grew out of a shortage of proper sizes available in the store. My experience is that in sports bras, just as in regular bras, many stores and bra fitters think the band sizes should be larger than they should.