guide to sports bras

Having never needed a sports bra of my own, I never felt comfortable putting together a guide on choosing a sports bra. Well, that has changed!

See, my local rock climbing gym, The Climbing Wall, has a Ladies Night special – half price for girls… and guys in sports bras! It sure is nice of them not to discriminate!

Naturally, I needed to learn a thing or two about sports bras if I would be (1) climbing while wearing one and (2) being seen wearing one! So, with the help of a few generous ladies, I was able to put together this guide!

I only needed a sports bra for rock climbing, and only to save money, so as long as the bra didn’t cut off my breathing, it worked.

As a woman, you will need a sports bra for running, cycling, swimming, triathlons, yoga, resistance training, and just about every other activity.

And you’ll need it to actually do its job!

You may be wondering…

  • Is one bra enough?
  • Will I need different bras for different purposes?
  • How do I know which one is best for me?
  • What’s my size?

All these questions and more will be answered…


Why Do You Need a Sports Bra?

purple champion c9 racerback bra

For women, there is one item of clothing that is more important than all the others (even your running shoes.) It is, if you couldn’t guess, the sports bra! Sports bras keep you comfortable and pain-free during your workout, and over the long-term, help your breasts retain their shape and perkiness.

There are ligaments in your breasts, called Cooper’s ligaments, that give them their shape and hold them tight to your chest. If these ligaments get stretched out from your girls bouncing around while running, they won’t return to their original shape. In other words, your breasts will sag.

Know how some athletes never come back from an ACL injury? It’s the same idea – once stretched, strained, or torn, ligaments are never the same.

Endurance athletes need sports bras as much as basketball players, volleyball players, etc.. Running is a “high impact” sport and requires a serious bra. Even lower impact sports like yoga and road cycling require some type of sports bra for support.

But getting a sports bra is not enough. You need one that fits properly!


How to Measure For Your Bra Size

Some websites will give you a formula for calculating your exact bra size. Ha! As we know from calculations like estimated Maximum Heart Rate, formulas just give you a starting point (at best.) Sometimes they’re horribly wrong.

Generally, measuring for your bra size requires taking multiple measurements, adding and subtracting numbers, and correlating the differences into cup sizes. So you end up with your supposed band size and cup size.

Thing is, the shape of the cup also matters, so you can’t rely only on the volume measurement. And every manufacturer is a little bit different anyway, so you have to find your correct size for each one! It’s a never ending process!

It sounds like a pain, and everyone I’ve talked to agrees that it is!

So let’s forget about them, shall we? A better idea is to consider the fit.


Good Fit vs Poor Fit

The most important feature of any sports bra is that it fits you properly! Here’s what to look out for.

Snug Fit

A properly fitting sports bra will be more snug than a regular bra. That’s a given.


The band should be tight and will probably leave red marks on your skin. That’s just what happens when you wear tight clothing! However, it should not restrict your breathing.

Also, the band should not ride up in the back. This is easy to miss, so make sure you’re checking in the mirror.


The cups should be full but not overflowing.

There should be no wrinkles in the material, which could indicate the size is too big. Aside from not giving the proper support, this extra material will bunch up and cause chafing.

If you have any skin rolls sticking out the sides of the bra, that generally indicates the size is too small. Either that or it means you should try the “scooping & swooping” method when putting on your bra.


The shoulder straps should not dig in nor fall off. They need to be tight enough to stay in place, but not so tight they dig in.


Other Fitting Concerns

Once you get the basics down, take all this into consideration!

If you are changing sizes.

If you’re looking for a bra that fits, don’t just try different band sizes. Changing the band size could mean you have to change the cup size, too!

Cup size is not static – it’s relative to band size! A tighter band means there is more support underneath, so you’re more likely to spill out. Which means you’d need a bigger cup.

Most women have asymmetrical breasts.

Your breasts won’t be exactly the same. Generally, one is a bit larger than the other. If it’s noticeable, make sure you fit the sports bra to the larger breast. You can typically adjust the strap on the smaller side to make up for the difference.

Breast size can change during your cycle.

For many women, their breasts will enlarge just before they start their period. It’s possible the change could be a full cup size, so you may have certain bras that fit better at certain times of the month. (Keep this in mind when shopping!)


What Type of Sports Bra Do I Need?

Let’s look at the three main types of sports bras you can choose from.

patagonia capilene sports bra

Compression bras

Compression bras are the simplest sports bras. They are just one piece of fabric, and they offer support by compressing your breasts against your chest to restrict movement. They are best for A, B, and C cups.

Sizing is simple, too. Compression bras come in general sizes like Small, Medium, and Large. Since the material stretches, one bra can span multiple cup sizes. (This is especially nice for anyone with asymmetrical breasts.)

They’re also very comfortable because the material will move with your body. There should not be any pinching or binding.

The only downside is that if the bra is tight enough to be supportive, it can take some effort to get on and off. (At least for me! I have trouble contorting and twisting around to get these bras over my shoulders.)

Encapsulation bras

Encapsulation bras use individual cups to surround and support each breast separately, much like “everyday bras.” They are best for larger-breasted women who need extra support – typically D and DD cups.

Since there’s no compression, these bras keep your curves and prevent the dreaded “uniboob” effect.

Also, these ones typically come in cup and band sizes rather than just S/M/L, so it can take some time to get the correct fit. Once you find the right one, though, the fit should be very precise.

Encapsulated Compression bras

moving comfort juno

These bras combine compression and encapsulation into the same bra. They feature separate molded cups, but with a layer of compression fabric on top, so they are both supportive and comfortable.

Since they offer more support than compression alone, they are best for women with C and D cups who need more than a simple compression bra, but don’t require a full encapsulation bra.


Features to Look for in a Sports Bra

There are many little features to look for in a sports bra.

Wicking Material

No matter the type or size, make sure the bra is made from a good wicking material. Usually this fabric is a blend of polyester, nylon, and spandex, and it might have a fancy name such as Coolmax, Double Dry, or DriFit.

Whatever you do, do not go with 100% cotton, because it will get soaked in sweat and chafe your skin. Cotton will be comfortable when you first put it on, but once it gets wet, it won’t dry, and then you’re in trouble.

Think about it. The compression in a sports bra will push everything together, and with no air flow in there, you’ll be sweating quite a bit. If there’s sweat collecting between your breasts, it won’t be pretty. (You can have chafing between your boobs just like in your armpits or between your thighs!)

Some bras will offer mesh inserts for extra breathability. This is a good feature as long as it doesn’t create chafing issues.

Smooth Seams

You don’t want seams cutting into you or chafing, so make sure to find a bra with taped seams, flat, smooth elastic, and smooth tags (or tagless.) Turn it inside out and feel all around for anything that could be abrasive.

Make sure any hooks/loops, clasps, or adjustment points are padded.

If you wear an A or B cup, you may even find a completely seamless bra that will work well for you.

Shoulder Straps

champion c9 racerback white

Good shoulder straps are essential for any sports bra. Generally, wider straps are better, especially if you have a large chest.

Adjustable straps come in handy because then you can customize the fit.

For low impact activities, traditional “scoop style” straps are sufficient. They are also more comfortable for extended wear.

For high impact activities, such as running, I highly suggest the “racer back” style. This is where the straps cross over or come into one single strap, making it virtually impossible for the straps to slide off your shoulders.

Bottom Band

Just like shoulder straps, the wider the bottom band, the more support it offers. You’d be surprised by just how much of the bra’s overall support comes from that bottom band. (The shoulder straps really only hold up the cups. The majority of the bra’s support comes from this band.)


You may prefer a padded sports bra to provide a little extra shape, or comfort, as well as prevent your nipples from poking out. This is personal preference.


For extra support and shape, you can find sports bras with underwire. Generally the larger bras and plus size bras will have this reinforcement.

Just pay close attention here. Make sure the “wire” is completely covered in fabric so it can’t poke you as you run or ride.


Know Your Activity’s Impact Level

If you participate in many different activities, you need multiple styles of bras! You’ll use a different bra for running than you would for cycling or yoga.

Here are examples of activity levels:

Low impact:

  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Weight Lifting

Medium impact:

  • Road cycling
  • Skiing
  • Ice or inline skating
  • Hiking

High impact:

  • Running
  • Mountain biking
  • Aerobics and Zumba
  • Plyometrics

Now, follow along to see what you need to know to pick out the right sports bra for you, depending on your activity.


Choosing a Sports Bra for Running

If there’s one sport where your bra really matters, it’s running!

First of all, running is a high impact sport, so get a bra designed for high impact sports. It generally states this right on the tags.

There’s also a lot of upper body movement, so I highly suggest the racer back style. This will keep the straps from slipping due to your swinging arms.

Aside from that, just pay attention to everything mentioned earlier – wicking fabric, smoothness, etc. – and you’re golden!


Choosing a Sports Bra for Cycling

Cycling should be the easiest sport to buy for, as there’s not much upper body movement. The thing is, you will need a separate bra for cycling. If you just wear your running sports bra, you might be uncomfortable because it will feel like there’s too much support.

Also keep in mind the change in body position – instead of standing upright, you’re going to be leaning over. Make sure you bend over into the aero position when you try on the bra. With your shoulders pulled forward and your back stretched out, spreading your lats, you could very well prefer a completely different brand or size of sports bra.


Choosing a Sports Bra for Swimming or Triathlon

Swimming is low impact, so if you’re just out swimming, you don’t need too much support – just comfort and mobility. If your arms can move freely, you shouldn’t have a problem.

Competing in a triathlon is a different story. You’ll want to find a sports bra that works well during swimming, biking, and running!

In some cases, like for A/B cups, a regular tri top by itself has enough support. But for C/D and larger, you’ll probably want a sports bra that can be worn under your tri top and kept on for the bike and run.

Ideally, you don’t want to change clothes in the transition areas, because struggling with wet clothing (or dry clothing and a wet body) will waste valuable time.


Shopping for a Sports Bra

According to everyone trying to sell you a new bra, 75-80% of women are wearing the wrong size sports bra!

To make sure you don’t fall into this category, here are some shopping tips.

Do your shopping in person.

Do your shopping in person so you can try on the bras before you buy.

This is just like with running shoes where getting a perfect fit is very important and worth the time. Actually, it’s probably more important, because despite the barefoot running trend, there is no bare chest running trend that I know of!

Some stores, “BraTenders” for example, even offer personalized bra fitting sessions. Check to see if there’s something like this in your area. Here’s what you’re in for:

Try on lots of bras in different sizes.

To make sure you get the right one, try on different brands of sports bras in different sizes. Sizing a sports bra isn’t always the same as a traditional bra, so try on your normal size as well as nearby sizes just to be sure.

For each bra you try on, be sure to run in place and move around in different directions.

Choose specialty running stores.

I suggest visiting a running specialty store (or at least a sporting goods store) when shopping for a sports bra for running. Not only will they have the right bras, they may have an indoor treadmill you can use while test driving the bra!

Department stores may offer sports bras, but generally these are only suitable for low impact activities. The only exception to this rule I know of is Target. They carry Champion C9 sports bras, which are quite popular and very affordable.

Another great choice, especially once you have a favorite brand, is factory outlet stores. I’ve been through Champion, Under Armour, Nike, Reebok, and Adidas outlets and found surprisingly good selections and low prices.

Look for online retailers with good return policies.

Shopping online is still an option, especially if you are replacing a bra that you already know you like. The key is choose a store with a good return policy that includes no hassle returns and free shipping both ways.

Stores like REI, Road Runner Sports, and Running Warehouse are good options, but I often turn to Zappos. has a huge selection of sports bras and the best shipping and return policy I’ve ever seen. You can order a few different sizes and just send back the ones that don’t fit perfectly!


Popular Brands of Sports Bras

Consider these popular brands for your next sports bra.

champion c9 cami melon

Champion Sports Bras

Champion sports bras are extremely popular. Champion has been around for a long time and they make some high quality bras at great prices. I’d say Champion makes the best value sports bras.

Champion outlet stores are common, and you can even find the Champion C9 sports bras at Target (with a price tag around $16.99.)

What’s more, Champion bras are available in lots of color options. This is great if you go out running wearing only the sports bra and no shirt on top.

(Personally, I can say that Champion C9 men’s underwear is some of my favorite!)

Moving Comfort Sports Bra

Moving Comfort makes some very popular sports bras. Their “Fiona” and “Juno” sports bras always get good user reviews as well as top ratings from magazines such as Prevention.

Title Nine

Title Nine makes a wide variety of women’s sportswear and athletic apparel. Their sports bras are on the expensive side, but many women swear by them.

Enell Sports Bra

The Enell sports bra is a plus size sports bra that’s like a tight vest with eye-hook closures on the front. It is for well-endowed women who need superior support and comfort while working out.


CW-X makes all sorts of technical apparel that looks really fancy. For their sports bras, they have something called a Targeted Support Web, which is supposed to provide both excellent comfort and support.


Caring for your Sports Bra

To get the most comfort and best support, take good care of your bras!

In general, I suggest that you hand wash and hang dry, if possible. Just like you already do for your fancy cycling shorts.

It’s also a good idea to replace them every year. (Or sooner, if used often.)

If a bra feels loose or starts chafing, that’s a sign it’s time to replace it. The synthetic fabrics will start to stink by then, anyway.


Bras featured in this article:

Here are some of the bras mentioned or pictured in this article.

Compression bras:

Encapsulated Compression bras:

Encapsulation bras:


Cycling has me shaving my legs and now rock climbing has me wearing sports bras. What’s next?!

You may also like
  1. Surprisingly good, for a guy!

  2. I am a B cup and I swear by the Moving Comfort Vixen!

  3. Actually it’s tougher to find cycling bib shorts that work with my large bosom! Imagine bib straps and a D-DD chest…

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