Women’s Sports Underwear – Good or Bad?

Perfect underwear of any sort makes you feel like a million bucks, this is probably why top lingerie is so expensive! However, get it wrong and every woman knows the persistent discomfort that comes from an ill-fitting thong, or a pinching bra. Even more awkward than everyday lingerie, woman’s sports underwear unleashes a whole new minefield of fitment, support, fabric and style options. Navigating the ever-increasing range of options is a daunting task at the best of times, but when you add in the lack of return options on intimate apparel, making the wrong choice can be both uncomfortable and costly.

Starting from the Top – Sports Bra considerations

Only very lucky ladies can get away with one sports bra for most activities, and even if you’re blessed with a small cup size and excellent breast elasticity it’s really not recommended. Dr. Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom has published an article on the range of health problems that are associated with wearing a poorly fitted bra, in which she suggests 80% of the female population do not wear a correctly fitted bra! She goes on to link a lack of breast support and issues with finding a well-fitting and appropriate sports bra with a reluctance to exercise. Running

Debbie Risius and a team of researchers working with Dr. Scurr have been studying breast movement during exercise since 2005, and believe it or not, they’ve found that some breasts move up to 21cm (8.25 inches) during exercise, and 72% of females experience breast pain due to up and down, as well as side to side motions of the breast tissue! The full article is a fascinating read and including elements of how the breasts move while running, and the history of the sports bra – did you know it’s only been around since 1977!

Debbie Risius (Senior Research Associate at the University of Portsmouth) has the following 5 simple steps for the perfect bra fit:

  1. The band should be horizontal all the way around
  2. The cups should not bulge or gap
  3. The underwire should follow the natural curve of the breast tissue
  4. The front of the bra should sit flat against the chest wall
  5. The shoulder straps should be adjusted correctly

Published in The Conversation, “Bouncing breasts, the science of the sports bra”, August 9, 2012, available at https://theconversation.com/bouncing-breasts-the-science-of-the-sports-bra-8485, accessed January 12, 2020.

Sports bras, in general, fall into 3 different levels of support and should be chosen, in line with the fitment parameters above, with consideration for the level of support required by the activity to be undertaken.

Low support bras are suitable for low impact activities – think yoga, walking and perhaps low impact strength training, I would think twice before weight lifting in a low support bra, especially if attempting Olympic lifts like a snatch!

Medium support bras are deemed suitable for activities with only moderate risk of breast bounce, things like road cycling (without too many potholes please), moderate hiking (I’d avoid any mountain goat type maneuvers) and cross-country skiing.

High support bras come into their own in vigorous activities with lots of direction changes, think anything downhill, aerobics, running and jumping rope.

Add the panties or knickers

As with the bra, the fit of the underwear is key, cut wrong and they’ll try to cut you in half! A comfortable cut is unique to you, some elements to consider:

Boyshorts – can be good if you tend to chafe and as long as the fit is fairly snug they will avoid the dreaded VPL, however, if you have a generous bum they may not protect from builders bum unless paired with a high waisted outer layer such as leggings or shorts.

Thong – a well-fitting thong is a discrete thing of beauty; however if they are not cut for your waist and bum proportions you run the risk of them turning into bum floss, creating a muffin top where one has no right to be or exposing themselves as a throwback to the early naughties. I’ve recently discovered the only sports thong ever that has worked for me!

Briefs – they can be evil – unless you have exactly the right cut for the waist and bum they can chafe as well as turn into bum floss, create a muffin top and expose themselves… if you’re really unlucky they’ll also generate VPL and the builders bum at the same time. However, when well-chosen I find very little as comfortable as a good pair of briefs.

Also requiring consideration is the appropriateness of the fabric and it’s properties to the activity being undertaken. Technical fabrics can provide breathability and wicking properties, drawing the moisture away from your body to reduce the chances of odours emanating from your sweaty groin as well as the risk of itching, and infection such as bacterial vaginosis or vaginal yeast infections.

Wicking fabrics include but are not limited to:

  • microfibre
  • Merino wool and mixes – surprisingly not itchy!
  • beech tree fibers mixed with elastane
  • bamboo pulp

Construction considerations:

  • minimal seams, as these cause both chafing and VPL risk – if seams exist look for flat-locked seams
  • scalloped or “laser cut” edges can minimize VPL, lace or rolled edges is likely to increase its risk and lace, in my experience can cause the most painful chafing you’ve ever experienced!

Don’t forget the socks

High-performance socks can make a world of difference, obviously, this depends on the sport that you are doing, but there is very little that feels as good as pulling on a brand new pair of perfectly fitting socks! For most exercise endeavors, as long as your socks are suitable to your type of footwear (i.e. you’re not wearing ankle-length stocks in high cut hiking boot) there is a wide range of socks to choose from; however, there are some key things to keep in mind.

Seams – if the seams on your socks pass over an area of contact in your shoe – for instance putting pressure where your big toe joins your foot it may cause chafing, in this case, look for flat, or “inside out” seams

Size – socks are now made in much smaller size ranges, so check to make sure you’re getting the correct one (and bear in mind that there is a difference between UK and US sizing, I’ve made that mistake, as has my boyfriend – you’d be amazed how different a UK size 13 is to a US size 13!)

Footedness – there are a number of socks now available in mirror images, so that the left foot and the right foot are shaped to suit, these often provide a much better fit.

Technical requirements – depending on your sport it can be worth investing in socks specific to your activity, for instance, I have socks designed for mud running which fit tightly to prevent mud entering and wick quickly to get your feet dry as fast as possible. I also have knee-high compression socks, which have the dual-purpose of reducing fatigue while running and preventing blood pooling on the long flights I take to visit family.

Other uses

The elements that make a great exercise underwear also translate very well into traveling clothes. The properties of comfort, sweat-wicking, lack of chafing, VPL and builders bum free are all great when stuck in an airport, on a long haul flight or in a sweaty train. Technical underwear has an added advantage of packing small and drying quickly, so if you need to wash out your bra, undies and socks in the hotel sink the chances are good that they’ll be fresh and dry when you wake up the next morning.


Underwear requirements are individual, but bad choices can be physically painful and costly. With research showing that something as simple as a correctly fitting bra could avoid pain for 72% of the population, I suspect when underwear and socks are added to the equation everyone could benefit from some more informed choices – I know I certainly can, and I’m going to buy some new sports bras tomorrow!

What about you? Do you need some recommendations?

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4 Responses

  1. Jeff says:

    Your article really was interesting for me to read and understand how women underwear plays such an important part of their exercise program, I was aware of the sports bras despite I am a guy but I never imagined who much thought had to be considered when choosing sports bras and women’s underwear for sports.

    I thank you for such an informative article,

    • admin says:

      Thanks Jeff, most of the principles can be applied to men’s sports (or even just super comfortable for lounging) underwear, or so I’m lead to believe!


  2. Charlène says:

    Really interesting!

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