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The right support is freedom

The evolution of the sports bra is all about redefining fashionable comfort wear

Fitness bunny Palesa Buyeye.
Fitness bunny Palesa Buyeye.
Image: Steve Tanchel

As a young Black woman, freedom to me has meant different things at different stages of my life. What is freedom today may not be freedom tomorrow. In my fitness journey, for example, when I first started working out, freedom meant being able to take up space in the weights section at the gym, which is usually filled with men. It meant overcoming my fear of looking like I don’t know what I’m doing.

It then evolved into my not being afraid to lift heavy and grow muscle, and to live by my own standards of what I want my body to look like. Today, it has evolved into my feeling comfortable enough to wear what I want when working out and being unapologetic about my fashion choices, which include a crop top and shorts on some days and a baggy top with a hoodie tied around my waist on others.

And as the concept of freedom continues to evolve, so do the essentials that promote it — including something as simple as a sports bra.

The sports bra has gone from being a general bra for exercise to a fashion statement, a statement of fitness. We all know the aesthetic of buying a smoothie after gym while rocking a pair of high-waisted tights.

However, in a poll I recently did on Instagram, 75% of the gym-goers said they had never measured their bust/cup size with a measuring tape when shopping for a sports bra. Just how important is the right size and type for your workout and personality, and where does one even start?

In a recent study, Adidas found that 90% of women reported wearing the wrong size sports bra, while 44% reported movement-related breast pain from a lack of support — something I struggled with at the beginning of my journey.

“If breasts are not properly supported during running they could experience the same G-force as an F1 driver… movement-related breast pain affects half of exercising females and is thought to be caused by the stretching of the skin and nerves,” says University of Portsmouth professor in biomechanics Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, who has collaborated with Adidas in its new 43-piece bra evolution.

The first step is finding your correct size, by using a measuring tape. Wrap it around your back and across the fullest part of the bust for the first recording. Then wrap the same tape across your back and just underneath the bust. It’s easier to do this while bare-breasted or wearing a fitted item of clothing. For the best results — and if you’re doing it without assistance — do it in front of a mirror.  

“A correctly fitted sports bra can reduce pain-inducing breast movement by 73%,” says local Adidas tech rep Jade Wilkinson. “If the under band is too loose it will ride up during exercise and won’t provide enough support, and if it is too tight it can restrict breathing during exercise.”

It’s also important to remember that breast size changes throughout your fitness journey, because of weight gain or loss — one needs to keep note of these changes, as nothing is worse than having to keep adjusting a sports bra during a set of burpees.

After finding the right size, the next step is finding the right type of sports bra for your workout.

For example, if, like former UJ hockey player and Sudor trainer Samantha Shabalala, you incorporate weight training, cardio, sprints, and high-intensity interval training, you need a high-impact/fast-impact support bra.

“In weight training, most of the time you’re static, which means you can use a medium-impact bra, but you may feel more comfortable with a high-impact bra if you have bigger breasts,” says Shabalala.

“Medium-impact workouts include gym workouts, tennis, dancing, cycling, and hiking,” says Wilkinson.

In low-impact workouts such as yoga and Pilates, a lightweight studio bra is more fitting, while a seamless bra is fine for that fitness aesthetic when running errands.

“When fitting a sports bra, it is important to check the support offered by doing some jumping jacks, running on the spot, or yoga poses, to ensure that it’s adequate,” adds Wilkinson.

Like Shabalala, I do a combination of high- and medium-impact exercises. So, I want a bra with adjustable straps, and I want to know if it will cause chafing and how it absorbs moisture — nothing makes me more uncomfortable than visible sweat patches while working out. 

“Like everyone else, when I started training at the gym I was nervous, but what helped me become more confident was having a plan and not being afraid to ask questions. Ask questions!” says Shabalala.

Shabalala’s tips for looking cute while getting fit

  • Know what sits well on you. I prefer seamless tights because I like to pull my pants all the way up. Previously, we didn’t have many options, but now you can find many with an adjusted weight fitting at the back, perfect for squats.
  • Go to factory stores or even places such as Mr Price Sports that offer affordable sets.
  • Check out affordable local retailers such as Slay with Kay Fitness or Athi Health and Fitness.
  • Find a gym environment in which you are comfortable — the more comfortable you are the more your look evolves.