Your calf muscles -- which consist of the deeper soleus and more superficial gastrocnemius -- are critical in running, whether you're a sprinter or a distance runner. They are almost entirely responsible for the push-off phase of the stride cycle, and absorb about 1,500 footstrikes per mile, according to Kara Goucher's "Running for Women: From First Steps to Marathons." A burning sensation in these muscles may signify the benign effects of high levels of exertion or the onset of injury.
Some types of running result in burning in the calves as a predictable consequence of metabolic or physical processes. When you run at top speed or close to it for a prolonged period of time, the accumulation of lactic acid in your calf muscles as a result of anaerobic metabolism.
A similar phenomenon occurs when you run uphill at more modest paces. Although you're not moving as quickly, the demands on your muscles are virtually identical, and the incline forces them through a greater-than-usual range of motion, accentuating the burning feeling.
Calf muscle strains are extremely common among sprinters and distance runners alike. A calf strain usually produces a dull ache, but often manifests as a sharp or burning type of pain. Not stretching or warming up properly, dehydration, and overzealous training are typical causes of this injury. Treatment includes icing and possibly anti-inflammatory medications. A tear or rupture of the calf muscle usually entails resting for four to 12 weeks.
Injuries to the Achilles tendon, which connects the calves to the heel bone, are among the most frequent offenders when it comes to sidelining runners. If the injury is in the uppermost part of the tendon, it manifests for all intents and purposes as calf pain. Overly fast running, too many uphills, and increasing your mileage too rapidly are the chief contributors to this form of tendon inflammation.
Treatment of Achilles tendinitis includes not running, stretching the tendon, strengthening exercises and taking anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen. When you incur this kind of injury, avoid uphill running at all costs. Consult your physician for guidance regarding treatment.
Compartment syndrome is a comparatively rare calf injury, but it can cause excruciating burning pain. It occurs when, as a result of exercise, the calves hypertrophy, or grow too large for the sheath surrounding them. As runner and physician Cathy Fieseler notes in "Running Times," pressure on the blood vessels and nerves of the calves is the source of pain. If you have compartment syndrome, surgery in which the tissue surrounding the calf muscles is slit is the only cure.
- DrMirkin.com: Burning During Exercise Differs from Muscle Pain After Exercise
- Runners Rescue: Calf Strain and Running
- "Running Times"; Ask the Coaches: Achilles Tendonitis; Dr. Cathy Fieseler
- "Running Times"; Ask the Coaches; Possible Causes of Calf Pain; Dr. Cathy Fieseler
- Kara Goucher's Running for Women: From First Steps to Marathons: Kara Goucher
L.T. Davidson has been a professional writer and editor since 1994. He has been published in "Triathlete," "Men's Fitness" and "Competitor." A former elite cyclist with a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, Davidson is now in the broadcast news business.