4 Things to Look for in a Sports Bra

Emily Woodhouse Gear, Practical Advice

I know, I know. Underwear is not my favourite topic, nor probably yours either. It’s an annoying inconvenience that every so often I’m forced to trawl through shops to replace it. Because I’ve used the last one to destruction and really I’d just rather buy exactly the same thing again. But I can’t because I’ve had it so long they’ve stopped making it.

So, for my last piece in collaboration with adidas I thought, you know what, let’s just get a load of sports bras and see what works and what doesn’t. What I like and don’t like. What’s great for outdoor activities and what ought to be locked firmly in the gym. Here’s the results of my investigation: four things to look for when you’re buying a sports bra.

1. Stitching in the Middle

Many sports bras have removable pads. This is great for coverage but only if done right. And the way you can tell whether it’s done right is by looking to see whether there is any stitching in the front-middle panel. Basically: whether any effort has been made to separate the fabric tube, that makes up the front of the bra, into two halves. The stitching might be on the inside or outside (or both) so turn it inside out if you can when you’re looking.

If they have, excellent. There’s a high chance those removable pads will stay exactly where they’re meant to be. If not, and the pads aren’t sewn in either, then there’s a big risk that the pads will go walkabout. Because two bits of fabric inside a tube of fabric – plus motion – means those pads are going to start travelling.

For example, I wore the All of Me 3-stripes sports bra for about a month straight while I was hiking in California. Aside from questions about my sense of hygiene, I realised a little too late that it didn’t have any middle stitching. This didn’t cause problems all the time but readjustment was required when somehow I’d end up with a singular double pad in the middle of the bra. Similarly the Aeroreact Training 3-Stripes bra, pictured above left, has no separation. On the other hand, the Powerreact Training Techfit bra (pictured right) has a clear line of stitching, keeping all pads where they should be. There is some correlation between how “high-impact” the bra is and how well shaped the pads are, but not always.

2. The Type of Straps

A lot of this will come down to personal preference. Higher impact (ie more sturdy) sports bras tend to have thicker straps. To the extent that some look more like a crop top than underwear. Although this does mean more support, I personally find the thicker straps more annoying. When hiking there’s an argument that it provides more padding under the rucksack straps but I find it digs in more than a flat, thin strap. This will depend so much on the shape of your shoulders that you can probably only work this out for yourself by trial and error.

Luckily there is lots of choice. And, as you can see from the picture above, usually lots of choice of back system – which will determine where the straps sit on your shoulders and at what angle. Also be aware of where adjustable sliders are on thinner straps. These little bits of plastic or metal (like on a normal bra) adjust the length of the strap. But in outdoor sports they’re a key point that could dig in or rub if under a backpack, for example. Some sliders are in the front and others on the back – exactly where will depend on how long you have the straps.

3. Where the Gaps Are

Holes and breathability are another important factor when buying a sports bra for outdoor activities. It’s a bit of a compromise between support and sweatiness. Because a nice big open back will mean less fabric and less sturdy support. Similarly, the cut of the front panel (see picture: LHS is cut high at armpits and neckline, RHS is lower under armpits and dipped at the neck) can be warmer or cooler.

The adidas Aeroreact Training bra, pictured left, has a mesh panel that helps with underbust breathability. Look out for features like that when choosing. You might also consider the type of fabric used to decide whether it’ll make you sweat.

4. Strength of Support

You can usually tell just how strong the support is by the thickness of the band at the bottom of a sports bra . That and, usually, the width of the shoulder straps. The name or description will typically tell you what to expect too: low impact means walking, high impact means running or bouncing and medium is somewhere in between. From an outdoor perspective, putting on a high impact sports bra feels rather like wearing armour, whereas low impact is much more like normal underwear. However, the big issue I have with the stronger support bras is that they are very difficult to get off in a confined space (e.g. a tent). So my solution is: either don’t take it off while you’re camping, or choose a lower impact one.

Pictured above are the bands, from top to bottom, of Powerreact Training Medium-Support Techfit Bra, Aeroreact Training Light-Support 3-Stripes Bra and All Me 3-Stripes Sports Bra. These are medium, lower and low impact respectively.

A Final Word

Although we can get very caught up in the perfect gear for things, the truth is you don’t really need specialist sports underwear for outdoor activities. Sure, it might make you a bit more comfortable, but rather than wait for the perfect underwear I’d highly encourage you to just start with what you have. Don’t wear your nicest, because you may well trash it, but the quickest way to find out what works or doesn’t for you is to have a go. You would be amazed how many people are doing big adventures in high end kit… with a pair of M&S underpants on underneath!

Fed up of my sporadic use of social media? Then you need to be in the Adventure Squad! More like a chat with a cuppa and as far from doomscrolling as possible. Or while you’re here, have a read of some of my other gear reviews or adventure stories. If you’re new to the blog (hello!) you might want to start here first. I’m a female adventurer based in the UK.