Although running is often thought of as a "cheap" sport, we runners are no strangers to all the ways costs can add up. Besides the near-constant need for new shoes, there's a long list of add-ons that quickly get thrown into the mix as an athlete gets serious: fancy GPS watches, coaching fees, compression socks and sleeves, high-end gels and sports drinks, race registration fees... These extras range from truly performance-enhancing to lightly superstitious to simply joy-promoting.
But for athletes with breasts, there is another little-discussed, non-negotiable challenge: sports bras.
Proper sports bras are a key component of long-distance running. This sport is particularly high-impact, meaning breast pain must be managed much more meticulously compared to sports like road cycling or Olympic weightlifting, for instance.
The need for sports bras creates an obstacle for athletes on multiple levels. Acknowledging these economic and emotional barriers are integral to improving representation in long-distance running.
First, breast pain is a very real deterrent for enjoying exercise of all types. According to a study of 1,285 female athletes in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 1 in 3 women reported breast pain during any kind of exercise, regardless of breast size. Nearly 2 in 3 women reported pain during vigorous exercise. Unsurprisingly, incidence of pain was highly correlated with breast size.
Needless to say, pain during exercise isn't exactly an enticing prospect. This creates a pattern of negative reinforcement that makes it harder for athletes to enjoy running. Athletes should never be expected to "suck it up" and run through preventable, unproductive pain as some sort of cost of admission to sport.
More importantly, sports bras pose a significant economic barrier. Inexpensive sports bras with basic support generally cost around $20-$30 at a minimum. High-support sports bras run $60 on a good day, and can easily cost up to $100 per bra. As someone who wears a larger cup size and has reviewed activewear professionally for over 7 years, I can attest that inexpensive, truly supportive sports bras are vanishingly rare, to say nothing of the ethical implications of cheaply produced goods.
Not only is the bra itself expensive, purchases aren't always successful. We're all familiar with the frustration of purchasing a pair of shoes that ends up not working out, despite the best of intentions. Similarly, a sports bra might feel comfortable and supportive for a few minutes bouncing around in a fitting room, but on mile 15 of a long run, that bra might not feel great anymore. At that point, most merchandise cannot be returned, leaving the athlete saddled with an expensive bra that doesn't meet their needs and back at square one.
Often, discussions around proper support wind up as conversations about wearing the correct bra size, citing statistics around the proportion of people in suboptimal sizes. Yes, education around proper fit is valuable, but it is hardly a magic solution. Bra shopping is nearly universally a source of dread for those who have to do it. The psychological and logistical burden of trying on dozens of styles, navigating returns processes, scraping together funds for replacements when your current bras expire, starting the process over again if your body size changes, and doing all this while juggling disproportionate amounts of domestic and emotional labor for the household can be completely overwhelming. When finding time just to train is a daunting prospect, many athletes will simply settle for wearing a sports bra they know is not right just to save their sanity.
Even in an ideal scenario where we assume all bra purchases are used through their full lifespan, the proposition is still costly. If an athlete owns 5 sports bras and wears them once per week, the bras all likely need to be replaced after about one year to provide proper support. The lifespan can be shorter or longer depending on the style or the support needs of the wearer, but let's assume the user needs 5 bras a year as a middle-of-the-road estimate. At $60 per bra, that’s $300 a year. Does the only style that works for you cost $80 per bra? Need to replace them every 6 months? Want 10 bras in the rotation to reduce time spent doing laundry? Is the athlete's body size changing as a result of exercise? It's not hard to see how the cost can easily balloon to a staggering sum.
On top of that, factoring in the wage gap, women are generally working with less income to begin with. This income discrepancy is even worse for women of color and trans athletes, creating an even higher barrier to entry. Notably, the financial burden of sports bras has no equivalent for cis male athletes. Participation in sport is simply more expensive for those born with breasts.
With a price tag around $300-$800 per year, appropriate breast support to avoid pain can easily be one of the most expensive aspects of an athlete's running budget. For many athletes, this level of financial outlay is untenable, shutting them out of the sport altogether.
Granted, not all athletes encounter significant problems with sports bras. Not everyone needs high support, allowing some athletes to purchase less expensive styles and wear them for longer. But for a huge population of athletes, the need for quality sports bras is indisputably a financially and emotionally burdensome prospect.
Long-distance running should not be a luxury that requires ample disposable income, a certain body type, or both. But the reality is that for many athletes, sports bras pose a significant economic and emotional burden that makes participation unreachable. It is a tragedy that the problem of sports bras and breast support alone have the power to halt an athlete's running career before it begins, meaning their full athletic potential is never realized. Not only do those athletes miss out on the transformative, joyful experiences of our sport, our community is also less enriched as a result of their absence.
Right now, there may not be any clear solutions to this issue. However, it's important to open more conversations about the barriers to a more inclusive sport. These conversations will give way to more solutions and, ultimately, a richer community for us all.