What does the price of a sports bra buy you that a normal bra doesn't, asks Karen Falconer
T he names Shock Absorber, TriAction, Cross-training and Minimal Bounce sound like something from SAS training but that's part and parcel of the new boldness which surrounds today's sports bra.

Hanging loud and proud from sports-shop carousels and flagging themselves up in every lingerie department from Marks & Spencer to Contessa, these are bras with attitude; bras that have left demure cardboard packaging behind and flout themselves with in-your-face graphics as "the essential piece of sports kit", worn (and advertised) by winners such as Sally Gunnell.

More than that, we are told, with their hi-tech textiles and computer- aided design, these are vital weapons in a modern woman's struggle against saggy breasts and "jogger's nipple".

"A lot of people don't know that the breast has no muscle and can't be built up in the gym. It's only fat and milk ducts, held up by a delicate set of ligaments which stretch with age. Without wearing support you are accelerating the stretching process," says Angela Masella, senior brand manager at Berlei, maker of the Shock Absorber.

Alan Bergman, managing director of Dans-ez and a former professional dancer, concurs: it was noticing his girlfriend clamp her breasts with her hands while jogging that led him to design and patent his Minimal Bounce Bra, a sort of crop top which pulls the breast tight and close to the body.

"It's a question of physics," he says. "The breast needs to be brought as close as is comfortable to the chest wall. A great sports bra needs to be initially flat without using cups or darting. If you cupped your breast in your hand and jumped up and down, it would be far more comfortable than if you had put your hand under your breast. For active sports, it's best to err on the small size even though it may feel like a cultural shock to the breasts the first time."

Any woman who works out or plays sports is painfully aware of the problem. And sports bras, with their robust vocabulary of pressure points, racing backs, broad straps, restricted stretch, breathable fabrics and Velcro fastenings, may be the perfect solution for sporty women. With their image of added value for money and technical finesse, they are also a lucrative new market for the manufacturers that will be lining the aisles of this week's Harrogate Lingerie Show, which itself launched a Best Sports Bra award last year.

But while there's obviously a need to be met, every company's solution seems to be different. "Our philosophy is that you shouldn't wear underwired bras when doing sports, because the wire can sit on the breast tissue when you're doing, say, an aerobic stretch. The big challenge is to give the support and shape women get from underwires without using them. We use slings (from the armpit to under the cup) and cradles (acting as a frame underneath) and straps with restrictive stretch," says Ms Masella about the Berlei Shock Absorber range of 10 sports bras in cup sizes ranging from AA to G, some straight bras and other crop tops with matching briefs. Its bras, from around pounds 20 plus (cup sizes A to F), are graded in "impact levels" 1 to 4, and the back of each box shows you what your impact requirements are according to your chosen activity and cup size.

Triumph, too, sticks to seam-free cups and no underwiring in its range of five TriAction bras, using a broad under-bust band for control and uplift, and Velcro rather than hook fastenings. "Our sports bras are graded shallower than normal bras so that they fit snugly. But we create them so the bust is allowed to move - we don't clamp them - to avoid any possible pressure points."

Marks & Spencer (pounds 18.99) hedges its bets on its new range of sports bras which come with and without underwiring, and with a choice of back or front fastenings. "We've tried to satisfy two sports consumers," says its spokesperson. "One who wears a sports bra under T-shirts and leggings; the other more extrovert, confident about her body, who just wears her crop top and briefs."

Even Fila have entered the fray with underwear "for women who want to look like they're sporty and for women who are" - not to mention those who like to sport a cool brand name when out clubbing.

But are sports bras just the latest fad, or are there real benefits to justify the not insignificant cost? Research conducted for Berlei by Heriot Watt University found that breast movement was reduced by 56 per cent when wearing a Shock Absorber bra, against 38 per cent with an ordinary bra, with even 34As showing a need for support.

June Kenton is the owner of the Knightsbridge bra specialists Rigby and Peller. Although the shop stocks sports bras by both Berlei and Triumph she is unequivocal in her advice to wear what suits you, as long as it's the right size. "We are always being told to wear sports bras, but the really important thing is to wear a bra that fits. Bigger women should be wearing an under- wired bra. I'm a 36C and work out three times a week in the gym, and find the bras that just stretch over me are not supportive enough; and can be extremely uncomfortable and hot. If you're doing aerobics you can be in a straitjacket and still bounce up and down because there's nothing holding you underneath."

At the end of the day, there's nothing else for it: check you've got the right-size bra, then jump up and down in the changing room to see if it fits.

Six Of The Best

Sports Bras

The Olympic:

The Triaction 5002 Sports Bra costs pounds 21 from Triumph (01793 720232) and, although not suitable for very strenuous activity, which requires more support it is apparently comfortable enough to be the favourite bra of the 1996 British Olympic team. Triumph is launching the new Triaction 4003 in February so remember to keep an eye out for that.

The sturdy:

Berlei's (01525 859 769 for stockists) B115 Sport Top costs pounds 30, and is part of the Shock Absorber range which was launched in 1995 and is endorsed by the British athlete Sally Gunnell. This top is new out and will be available in the shops this autumn. It feels a bit like wearing a tank but it incorporates a special fabric to keep you cool and lycra to improve the fit.

The sensible:

It comes as no surprise that the trusty lingerie favourites, Marks and Spencer (0171 935 4422 for stockists) should get in on the sports bra act and its White Sports Bra is what you'd expect from the British underwear favourites. It costs pounds 18 and is a simple, no-nonsense design with good support and no unnecessary - and unwanted - frills.

The colourful:

The Minimal Bounce Bra, pounds 20.49, from Dans-Ez (01843 866300 for stockists) does exactly what the name suggests. Once you've scooped yourself in, there's very little room for movement and this bra has kept me supported through everything from step aerobics to racing at Women's Henley. It may, however, be slightly uncomfortable for the very well-endowed.

The Shocking:

The B102 Bra costs pounds 21 from Berlei (01525 859 769 for stockists) and is part of the Shock Absorber range that has been awarded "Best Sports Collection" award for the last two years by the lingerie industry. One of the best things about the range is that the bras are all categorized into impact levels I - IV, according to bust size and the relevant sport.

The fashionable:

If you are the kind of person who looks at the label to see the name of the manufacturer before you even consider putting it next to your skin, then the Freebody bra by Fila (01475 504040 for stockists), could be the sports bra for you. It costs pounds 20 and cleverly combines good support with enough style to be worn on its own. Pictures: Neville Elder