Racing with a rack - a candid guide to boobs and bras for triathletes

(This was originally posted in June 2018 on my old blog and its been really well received so I decided to bring it across to the new site)

I had somewhat grander ideas for my first blog topic, but life has since cocked its leg to my plans this year and I find myself pretty much back where I was when I started out with Triathlon a few years ago. So instead, I am addressing the topic that nearly stopped me getting started in the first place, a subject that is quite literally close to my heart - boobs and the joys of running with a rack. 

Recently, I'd been chatting with some of our novice athletes at a transition practice session and the discussion came up about what to wear and whether you could change out of your swimsuit and into your bike/run gear in transition.  I recalled that I had initially held back from giving triathlon a go because I had similar concerns. My first inklings about triathlon came from listening to the race tales of some very talented runners at my local running group.  I thought it sounded awesome - I was already running and biking and I was a keen swimmer as a kid, so it sounded like a logical progression for my next challenge.   

For me, a sports bra is the most essential piece of kit for exercise.  Forget articles that suggest that trainers are the fundamental item - I can run without shoes but the pain of running whilst hanging free is too much.  And even if I made it through without injuring myself or anyone else, since turning 40 I find that gravity is not my friend and I'm in no hurry to accelerate the downward trajectory of my norks to my knees (to be honest, there is still no way I would bike or run in an actual swimsuit, but thankfully the TriSuit is a little more forgiving). 

The only way I could imagine doing it would be to stop after the swim and head into the changing rooms, but the idea didn't appeal - trying to wrestle my way into a sports bra when I'm wet would qualify as a endurance event all by itself.  So I assumed that triathlon simply wasn't going to be for the likes of a curvy gal.   Then a bit later I met some women with bodyshapes more akin to mine who were taking part in their local pool triathlon.  I asked how they managed with the lack of structural support and they laughed.  "You just wear it under your tri suit" was the answer.  So simple, so obvious.  But it had never occurred to me.

Since being armed with this knowledge, me and my boys have navigated our way around various events and we've learned a few tricks along the way.    Here's some of what I've learned along the way about the bringing your baps along for the ride....

1) Get a piece of kit that is properly up to the job 

If you really need significant support, you can skip past any tri suit with a "built in bra" (I'd also suggest sashaying along past those two piece suits whilst you're at it - tri tops tend to fit poorly if your boobs are on the bigger side, riding up and putting you at risk of a DSQ for nudity infringements).  You need a proper sports bra that you can wear under your suit.  Some people swear by the double-bra method but I've never found this comfortable.  My tried and tested go-to favourite is the Shock Absorber Ultimate Run Bra.

The Shock Absorber Ultimate Run Bra

  It has clips in the middle of the back as well as round the chest band which really helps to keep everything locked down.  My only criticism is that on occasion, one of the straps has unhooked itself -  but even then, the support is passable even though it's a little lopsided.  I usually hook a stitch or two through the strap to be doubly sure.  When I go to my friend Jenny's circuit class, I also strap myself in with something called a Booband - invaluable for anykind of jumping about malarkey like burpees or jacks. 

2. Think "Quick Dry"

Whatever bra you go for, find one that has minimal padding and fabric and make sure you try it out in the swim.  I once dabbled with a Panache underwired bra which had a double thickness of quite plush fabric in the cup. It was really effective but I only wore it to do my bike and run training.  Come race day, I clambered out of the pool and the rest of my race was like having two wet nappies stuffed down my front.  You need a bra which will dry out quickly.

3. It needs to be comfortable once it's on

This is particularly key if you are racing long distance.  Something that niggles in a one hour training run will definitely be annoying after several hours in the saddle.  And it needs to be comfy for all three disciplines.  A well engineered bra may require you to dislocate both shoulders to get yourself into it, but once it's on, it shouldn't feel overly constrictive.  Grab some sustenance, take yourself into the changing rooms for a couple of hours and wrestle yourself in and out of a few different sizes to see what works best. Don't just rely on what size you normally wear.  You might also consider getting a couple of different cup sizes, if you find you tend to fluctuate. 

4. Lube up for long runs

No matter how comfortable your bra, a build up of sweat, dirt and salt will mean things start to chafe.  My first ever marathon was London, and as often happens, the April race day was considerably warmer than the winter days of my long training runs. 

After the event, I headed back to my hotel, relishing the joyful moment that is taking your bra off after a long day.  The joy was short lived.  My skin came away with the bra and I screamed so loud that people from the neighbouring rooms came to ask if I was okay.   What should have been the most relaxing soak ever became the equivalent of bathing in a hornets nest made of barbwire and vinegar.  Now I slather BodyGlide across pretty much all contact points but particularly around straps and bands.

5. Be prepared to invest

Whilst triathlon can be done on a budget, if you want to train and race regularly, you are going to need multiple bras and at £30+ a piece, that's not cheap.  I find that handwashing has no place in real life so mine go in the machine in a mesh bag, along with everything else.  But the constant wear & wash means they lose their stretch and eventually you can no longer ignore the fact that they need to be changed.  The only tip I can offer is that once you find one you like, keep an eye out for the sales (though if you are popular size, this might not always be fruitful).

So that's the best advice I can offer about about managing your melons as a triathlete.  It's all a bit of a faff but it's definitely no reason not to give triathlon a try.  And the one blessing of needing a sports bra is that you are unlikely to fall foul of the blood rivers that flow from a chafed nipple... Happy triathloning!

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