How to choose a sports bra

A supportive sports bra is one of the most important pieces of running kit a female runner can buy - here's all the advice you need to find the perfect fit.

by David Mitchell
Getty Images

According to the latest research carried out by the Shock Absorber Sports Institute (SASI) at Portsmouth University, 9.5 million women in the UK are not supporting their breasts properly. Could you be one of them?

Read on to discover how you can protect your assets by investing in proper support.

Why wear a sports bra?

The average breast weighs between 250 and 300g, and any unsupported movement – such as running – causes three-dimensional movement: up-down, in-out, and side-to-side.

This can result in discomfort, chafing and strain on the breasts' supportive tissue – the Coopers ligaments – which in turn can eventually lead to sagging.

In fact, the SASI research also shows that on average, a woman's breast moves 9.08cm with every stride when running.

What's my size?

"There's no magic formula to finding out which bra size will fit you best," says Shock Absorber's Julia Nolan. If you have never worn a sports bra before, start with your usual bra size but be open to trying on different sizes before you find the perfect fit.

"First of all, ensure that the back band is at the same level all the way round. If it rides up, then it's too big," suggests Nolan. Your sports bra should fit snugly, but not be so tight that you can't breathe.

"You should be able to get no more than one finger under the band or in the cup, and the material should not pucker at all," says Selaine Messem, founder of online sports bra shop, Less Bounce.

Encapsulation bras have two cups like a normal bra, but with extra support. Compression bras, on the other hand, press your breasts against your chest, and are usually pulled on over your head. If you're opting for the former style, then make sure the centrepiece lies flat against the breastbone.

What shape of bra best suits my breasts?

Trial and error is the best way to discover which brand, model and size fits your breasts best. Most retailers should be able to suggest a selection of bras that, based on your body shape and level of activity, will suit you best.

If you're shy about having a fitting in person, then online retailers such as Less Bounce provide knowledgeable customer support and a freepost returns if you're not happy.

Don't forget though, that the shape of your bra will have an impact on how effective it is in reducing movement while running. "As with running shoes, many women stick with the same model of bra once they've found the one that works best for them," says Messem.

What level of support do I need?

Different bras offer different levels of support. The type you need will depend on your cup size and the type of exercise you do.

Low-impact sports bras, used for stretching or walking, are often cut like a crop-top and are, on the whole, made from thinner material. High-impact bras (for running) generally use less stretchy material, include supportive seams and overlays and are sometimes even underwired.

Running causes a large amount of breast movement compared with many other sports. "The level of support required does vary according to bra size, but whatever size you are we would recommend opting for maximum support," says Messem.

I'm smaller-/larger-chested than average, what options do I have?

Smaller-chested women may feel most comfortable wearing a compression sports bra. However,warns Messem,there is research to suggest that a properly structured encapsulation bra – which cups each breast individually – is more likely to give good support than a compression bra.

For larger cup sizes, encapsulating sports bras are definitely recommended; although some bras offer a combination of both encapsulation and compression.

What if I am pregnant or breastfeeding?

During pregnancy or when breastfeeding you will need the maximum support available. In addition, your bust size will change throughout your pregnancy, so consider buying an adjustable bra to avoid frequent replacements.

Some women find that wearing a crop top over a sports bra is the only way to stay comfortable when running during pregnancy.

Why has my sports bra started to chafe?

Sports bras usually start to chafe when the elastic has begun to age. It can also occur more frequently on longer-distance runs – this is because of the increased movement of the bra against the skin, due to perspiration.

"One solution is to tighten the rear-fastening by one notch before setting off," suggests Messem. "This can also be a solution if you've recently started running (or increased your training) and have lost weight."   

Like running shoes, a new sports bra will also need be worn in, so to avoid any unexpected problems, best not to wear a new bra on race day!

How long does a sports bra last?

"After 30-40 washes most sports bras need replacing. As a rule of thumb you will need three new bras for every one pair of running shoes," says Messem.

The technical fabric of your sports bra will wear in the washing cycle, and its elasticity will diminish during use. Try not to tumble dry your bra either: the heat will destroy the fabric on your bra and reduce its life.

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Discuss this article

Hi I'm nearly 17 and am looking for a really good sports bra. This has been partly the reason why I haven't been running that much recently, just a little bit of movement annoys me, its feels nasty and uncomfortable, especially as I'm a 34F. (Also I hate running along the road past cars if I feel my breastage is moving at all) I've tried a level four shock absorber, a pure lime, and an anita bra, but I keep just ending up having to wear two M&S ones together, which is well annoying, and not very good. I read a bit about the enell bra though, is it as good as it reads?? It looks good, but kind of like an armour, is it comfy? What are the best sports bras for girls with annoying big busts? Please help! Thank yoooou    


Posted: 27/01/2009 at 19:04

Katface - Nothing moves in a enell bra. I did have one, but put on weight and I gave it away but it did rub me. The only bra that has not rubbed me is my Shock Absorber B109. Bodyglide is the answer to stop things rubbing.
Posted: 27/01/2009 at 19:20

Enell, definately, it would hold a herd of elephants down. It looks hideous, but who cares?
Posted: 27/01/2009 at 19:38

Are you sure you're wearing the right size bra? My feeling is that if the back size is too big it's likely to rub, and your norks will bounce. Have you tried going to Bravissimo for a proper fitting?
Posted: 27/01/2009 at 19:48

i would go to lessbounce and ask advice from them - it's much better than the RW advice

and also search on here - there are tons of threads on this cos it is a common "problem"

Posted: 27/01/2009 at 19:52

Also I think you really have to try a new sports bra on before buying- I find the sizing is usually totally wrong for me. I'm a 36B but my sports bra is meant for 32C-E... Anyway hope you find one!
Posted: 27/01/2009 at 23:32

Hi Katface,

I have recently bought a black Enell bra and as most others have commented, it would hold a heard of elephants in place. Yes, I agree it's not the most attractive piece of kit, but being a 32DD I don't care, and no-one sees under a top anyway!!

It does feel slightly constrictive around back and under the bust but it is by far the best bra I have tried for keeping those bouncers under control, and being so snug, it doesn't rub in the slightest. Also, the material is excellent at keeping you dry.

I got mine from Booby Doo as Less Bounce didn't have any in stock and couldn't guarantee when I would receive one. Booby Doo delivered the next day!

They are expensive, but worth every penny. As SophieM said, go for a proper fitting first so you are clear in your own mind when you do decide to purchase. The sizing for the Enell states from 30 - 34 C - F and odd things, but there is a guide available on some websites.

 Good luck and happy running!

Posted: 28/01/2009 at 13:25

It is always best to try a sports bra on first. I am a 32-34DD and I am a 34E in Shock Absorbor bras.
Posted: 28/01/2009 at 14:32

I have the Enell bra and can recommend it (I'm 34E and have size 2!).

Make sure it's tight enough though. I have 2 in the same size but they fit slightly differently so one of them is only suitable for low impact work, not running.

Posted: 29/01/2009 at 11:37

Great thread, so informative......It would be better with pictures tho. 
Posted: 29/01/2009 at 18:22

Posted: 29/01/2009 at 18:25

LOL have to give your bra size Meldy, to post on here
Posted: 29/01/2009 at 18:29

its isnt an impressive statistic !!
Posted: 29/01/2009 at 18:30

Chist on a bike is no where safe?

Oi Yifter - out!

Posted: 29/01/2009 at 18:32

of course it isnt Siance ...  you know that have an inbuilt radar where knockers are concerned!
Posted: 29/01/2009 at 18:33

I'm outta you were ladies.

If only men knew what you had to go through.......I havent got over the herd of elephants yet!...ouch

Posted: 29/01/2009 at 18:38

Yifty, I like to lurk on bra threads as much as any other bloke but given the OP's age maybe this isn't one for the banter, hmmm?
Posted: 29/01/2009 at 21:36

Chill out Muttley....nearly 17yr olds are still allowed to laugh (not that I was aiming anything at OP)......

I hope you sort your norks out Katface(as SophieM called them), not that Ive ever heard them called that!

Posted: 29/01/2009 at 22:04

Hi yes I have same problem - I wear normal bra (underwired) and shock absorber of the tri sports bra and then wear an t-shirt with hidden support.  It does work - but not very comfy.

All the best karen

Posted: 01/02/2009 at 16:42

I have been wearing the Freya Active 30f but am now finding that it rubbing my back.  Does anyone of there is a bra out there with a gel strap?
Posted: 01/02/2009 at 16:47

This is great!  I thought I was the only one with this problem...  My recommendation is to wear 2 at the same time, a shock absorber and then a Jockey Sport... then a skin t-shirt and then a running shirt.  Alternatively have a reduction - ouch!!!

Posted: 02/02/2009 at 12:46

I bought a sports bra from Asda for about £5. Its seems okay but I havent tried any of the more expensive ones out there. If its a case of you get what you pay for then I am happy to spend more but its hard to know if its needed or not. ?
Posted: 30/03/2009 at 00:41


just got back from an unsuccessful trip to buy a sports bra. I tried the Enell, and it is too loose around my upper back and upper chest. I think the smaller size would probably be too small around the ribcage. I've also tried Royce impact free, and the shock absorber, but neither were good enough. am I expecting too much from a sports bra, as I'm a 32FF? I'm thinking of either trying to stitch the enell to see if that helps (though I'm loth to do that on such an expensive bra), or try the double-up method.

Posted: 05/04/2009 at 16:56

32FF? that is impressive
Posted: 05/04/2009 at 17:17

I love the Asda sports bras. They don't go up much past a 42D though I think.
Posted: 05/04/2009 at 17:17

I have used shock absorbers B109 (level 4) for about 4 years, never rubbed or hurt, I was a 34F but lost weight due to all the running so now 34E. Still use B109. Get properly fitted though, I went to Debanams

Posted: 05/04/2009 at 19:27

I've found that Debenhams are the only store that seems to have level 4s in stock, the rest have to order it for you.

LAJ  you should have tried the smaller size enell to see whether it would go over your rib cage. The sizing of them is wierd.

Posted: 05/04/2009 at 22:06

thanks NeverMind, I guess I'll have to try the next size down (I tried 2 other sizes). weird though as I'm in no way slim! must just have a small frame underneath all the fat.....
Posted: 06/04/2009 at 07:17

House of fraser have the full range of shock absorbers I got a B109 only last week £26
Posted: 06/04/2009 at 10:06

i will try asda for a sports bra as i have only got support bras
Posted: 16/04/2009 at 21:49

I had the Asda one not a patch on the shock absorber
Posted: 17/04/2009 at 05:54

Enell every time keeps the breasticles in place and doesn't rub, they do look awful though but I'm all about the comfort. I am a 28FF and wear size 0 Enell. Shock absorbers only work for low impact stuff for me.

Posted: 17/04/2009 at 07:00


I had high hopes for the enell, but unfortunately it doesn't seem to suit my shape and there's no way to adjust it! I ordered a bunch of different brands so I could compare, but some are still delayed so I'm a bit annoyed. the freya active one isn't bad, but may need something over the top too.

Posted: 17/04/2009 at 07:25

Does anyone know if there is anywhere in Central/South London area that stocks the Elnell where I could go and try one on? I've only managed to find online stockists so far. 

I'm a 38FF and I don't really understand the Elnell sizing guides I've seen online. My other concern is that I read somewhere that the Elnell's aren't made of wicking material - does this cause a problem? I'm currently using just a cotton lyra type thing and I find it rubs my ribcage as it soaks up sweat so much, so it couldn't be any worse! But given the price tag, I'd rather invest in something that will last and do the job properly (even if it does give me the 'giant uni-boob' effect).

Posted: 10/08/2009 at 13:08

I have a panache Sports bra, it's underwired and padded and doesn't rub and no movement
Posted: 10/08/2009 at 13:17

Thanks for the link - how do you find the underwire? Can you feel it when you are running?

Posted: 11/08/2009 at 16:11

Amakash wrote (see)

Thanks for the link - how do you find the underwire? Can you feel it when you are running?

not at all i hadn't even noticed it was there until I looked at it to write this post!  It's much better than the shock absorbers I find! I really like the fact that it is slightly padded too!
Posted: 11/08/2009 at 16:45


Completely new to running, the advice in this thread has been helpful, but when looking up the Enell on a webpage it says suitable for C-E, i'm a 34G is there something that would be more suitable?

Posted: 21/08/2009 at 15:38

I'm a 28G and wear an Enell size 0 no problem
Posted: 21/08/2009 at 18:04

Hope you've found a bra that fits by now LAJ.  I'm a 28FF and as you can guess the whole sports bra thing is a problem for me too.  If you haven't had a proper bra fitting in the past year I really would reccomend Bravissimo - they sell shock absorber and Freya, both of which I use and have no problems with.  Sprts bras often fit differetnoy to normal bra's so you need to be sure what your normal size is first , you often need a slightly wider band width with a sprts bra.
Posted: 21/08/2009 at 23:16

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